On July 25, the Portland Public Schools Board decides spending allocations for the proposed 2016 PPS Modernization Bond Measure, including projected budgets for restoring, repurposing, and constructing new educational spaces at Benson Polytechnic, Lincoln, and Madison High Schools. That Board vote may well soon start Benson Tech, one of Portland’s historically and culturally significant academic institutions, on a decline towards becoming a living museum or future avant garde entertainment venue.
At issue is whether or not Benson Tech, the only Bond-slated high school with high structural remediation priority and National Registry of Historic Places eligibility, will be given necessary tax-payer funds to implement an essential modernization plan as envisioned by the school’s Master Planning Committee, a group of expert stakeholders assembled by PPS. The plan submitted by this stakeholder team, as well as those submitted by independent Lincoln and Madison High School teams, seek improvements to meet life, safety, and Americans with Disabilities Act compliances. They also seek to enrich student experiences and enhance scholastic performance with modern adaptive classrooms, extended-learning areas, and makerspaces that support innovative next-generation instruction/learning styles and programs.
Among Benson Tech’s serious compliance needs are seismic upgrades to school-wide unreinforced masonry and, of course, media-reported district upgrades to drinking water and ventilation systems. Despite priority status for modernizing Benson Tech’s aging facilities, the Board’s Modernization Bond Subcommittee curiously places the school’s funding priority far behind the much less needful Lincoln and Madison High Schools. Indeed, all construction proposals recommended by the Board Subcommittee would have Lincoln and Madison High School modernization plans fully funded by the 2016 Bond Measure and completed by 2020. The Benson Tech plan, in contrast, would be realized through inflation-risky, logistics-demanding, and learning-disruptive phased construction funded by possible later supplementary bond attachments and full bonds with some undetermined construction completion date. Simply, Benson Tech will have to settle for initial emergency retrofits to preserve the school’s historic architectural features, structural integrity, and minimal life, safety, and access standards when the facilities of Lincoln and Madison High Schools will be entirely revitalized over the same Bond period.
Built and largely last renovated during America’s early to middle 20th century industrial awakening, Benson Tech’s Classic Revival architectural exteriors and many of its oldest interior spaces should be refurbished for historical reasons and improved safety and access. However, the school is much more than an upgrade-needing museum of American industrial prowess. It is a center of learning excellence. Benson Tech, unlike any other district high school, maintains state and national reputations as a place for strong STEAM/CTE training and for public good works. The school’s rigorous academic and vocational curricula integrate collaborative project-based instruction with real-world experience gained from industry-sponsored trade and entrepreneurial programs. Benson Tech students compete at a national level in scholastic and vocational contests and its graduates achieve noteworthy professional careers in science, technology, engineering, and healthcare fields.
Regardless of these successes, the 2016 Bond Measure itemization proposed by PPS leadership continues a decades-long assault on Benson Tech, with past decisions injuring the school’s student enrollment size, curricular and infrastructure modernization, and academia-business partnership development. This trend must stop with the current proposed Bond Measure. As a magnet school, Benson Tech educates a diverse set of students from around the district. It well prepares young men and women for later placement, retention, and advancement in academic and career choices found in the Portland area and beyond. It creates civic-minded individuals both capable and eager to improve their communities. If the intact submitted Benson Tech modernization plan is not fully funded by the proposed 2016 Bond Measure, then the future of an internationally unique educational institution and driver of city, state, and regional economics may become jeopardized. Benson Tech needs comprehensively modernized, not just retrofitted, facilities to continue its high-standard tradition of instilling job and university/college readiness.
PPS and the City of Portland should keep Benson Tech a modern place for STEAM/CTE learning. They should do so out of pride for Portland’s history and culture, out of self-interest in elevating the global tech-centered market competitiveness of Portland’s families and businesses, and out of concern for securing a vibrant future Portland.
Kevin B. Clark, Ph.D.
BPHS Alumnus and Master Planning Committee Member
Faculty, California NanoSystems Institute, University of California Los Angeles