Killing a School to Widen a Freeway?!

Last spring the Oregon Department of Transportation’s maps planning an I-5 freeway expansion were uncovered by No More Freeways PDX.  These maps detailed expanding the interstate onto the school grounds of Harriet Tubman Middle School.  Cars would be rushing past at 25 feet from the school building at the closest point, creating an atmosphere that does not foster learning.  ODOT proposed a noise wall, which although effective in blocking cars from view, does nothing for air pollution.  Harriet Tubman Middle School already has the worst air quality of all Portland Public Schools.  Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tubman had a continuously going HVAC system to keep out the smog.  Currently the only thing separating the busy highway and school is a sparse line of trees, which neither blocks the road from view nor hearing.  

Middle school is already not an easy place to be, for students or teachers.  Add to that a polluted and noisy environment, and the lack of support from the district that most North Portland schools experience, and challenging can be an understatement.  I spoke to my coworker, Jem Sugnet, who helped provide Tubman with supplementary science and social emotional learning this past fall, and he responded that “my short time teaching outdoors at Tubman was marred by noise and air pollution from the freeway that lay just beyond a thin row of trees and scattered refuse.  Its presence impaired the efforts of students and faculty to succeed in the already chaotic middle school environment.” 

In order to let the freeway expansion go on as planned, it has recently been revealed that there are proposed plans to move Harriet Tubman Middle School to the current location of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, or another PPS owned property in the Albina community.  This would displace the students currently attending MLK Jr, and force them to transfer to other nearby elementary schools.  

Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School is one of the, if not THE, first school in the United States named after civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Like Harriet Tubman, it is a predominantly Black school.  The school has a strong history and community, and splitting the school up would be incredibly harmful to the community.  Even more so because the schools in the area that MLK Jr. might funnel its students to are whiter schools.  Ultimately, this decision to widen I-5 has repercussions that impact the whole of the Albina and greater North Portland communities. Schools in North Portland are traditionally underfunded, understaffed, and overworked.  Add in polluted Harriet Tubman, and displacing MLK Jr. This is structural racism at its core.  

Can PPS make the right decisions when it comes to its students? Maybe. The history is not in the district’s favor though.  Look at lead contaminated drinking water (which I, as a former PPS student grew up drinking and saw some of my peers having lead poisoning by the time this came to light in 2017); repeated conversations about shutting down programs like the Japanese and Chinese Immersion Programs; and spending so much money on remodeling Franklin, Grant, and McDaniel High Schools that they ran out of money to fix Benson, one of the oldest and most run-down schools in the district.  And even beyond that, PPS struggles with decisions that benefit (or harm) the communities it serves. 

In 2011, amidst outcry and frustration, PPS shutdown Marshall High School.  Marshall had been struggling for a while, and the board eventually voted to shut it down.  But the shutting down of Marshall eerily mimics what could become of MLK Jr. Elementary. In the case of Marshall High, students from the area around 91st and Powell, with a high percentage of Asian Americans, were transferred to Franklin High School, a predominantly white school, as well as the current McDaniel High School, formerly known as Madison.   

I have spent 16 of my 22 years involved with PPS.  As a student in the Japanese Immersion Program I’ve spoken at board meetings and signed petitions to keep my program running since before I even knew what that meant.  I graduated in 2018 from Grant High School at the Marshall campus while Grant was being remodeled.  By the time of my graduation, I would say that I had lost all faith in PPS, but now working with them indirectly through my own school district I have become absolutely disgusted at the inequity that PPS upholds.  Looking at data such as district wide test scores, attendance rates, and racial demographics, PPS’s track record doesn’t look good. 

On Thursday, January 20th, No More Freeways PDX announced that the Federal Highway Administration has made the decision to rescind the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion as part of a reevaluation of the project.  Before the school board and ODOT finalize these decisions, please consider joining the biweekly protests that Youth vs. ODOT and No More Freeways PDX hold on every other Wednesday, 4:30 – 6 pm.  Write the school board to oppose widening I-5; contact info here.  Follow @savemlkschool on Instagram. This decision on the FONSI does not mean that the highway expansion will not proceed, but it is a spot of hope.

About Tri Sanger

Tri Sanger (they/them) is XRPDX's Youth Outreach Coordinator and a contributor to the XRPDX newsletter and Instagram account.


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