As Portland school officials toured Harriet Tubman Middle School, they marveled at the new science labs and dance studio. Upstairs, with a great view west of the Fremont Bridge and Forest Park, science teacher Paul Bubl was getting ready for students.
Like many of his students, Bubl was at a K-8 school last year — Boise-Eliot-Humboldt — and he was grateful to have more space and modern science equipment at Tubman. Those improvements will translate into better experiments for his students. Bubl's room is bigger, and he's got a wide hallway out his door where he's planning to do a physics exercise on force and velocity.
“Maybe instead of using a little car and a cart, maybe using a bowling ball, and seeing if those same principles apply in the small scale that they do in the big,” he said.
Portland Public Schools officials are excited about finally opening two new middle schools on the east side of the city, Tubman and Roseway Heights, after years of planning. Getting those buildings ready, as well as preparing Rose City Park as a neighborhood elementary school, cost $30 million.
More than half of that was spent at Tubman to address environmental problems that nearly derailed the school's opening.
Oregon's largest school district has drawn a great deal of attention in the past few years for how its leaders handled dangerous levels of lead in drinking water. PPS administrators have acknowledged deferring maintenance on its decades-old buildings and the reality that it will now take years and potentially billions of dollars to solve all the problems.
At Tubman, the biggest challenge was air quality.
As Bubl shared his excitement recently about the start of the new year and the experiments he can do in his new science room, a buzz persisted in the background. It came from a temporary air monitor that Portland State University researchers are using to analyze whether millions of dollars in air quality fixes are working.
During a tour of the remodeled building, while other district officials appreciated the new dance studio's shiny wooden floor and wall-to-wall mirrors, school board member Paul Anthony stared at the ceiling.
“You can see, like, on the seams here — that’s brand new," Anthony said.
“Yeah, all of the duct work in the building is pretty much brand new," added Steven Simonson, a project manager on the improvements at Tubman, Roseway Heights and Rose City Park. "It’s all part of the new filtration system that we put in.”
Simonson said about $18 million of the $30 million spent at the campuses went to address to air quality and asbestos abatement at Tubman. He was eager to show off the crown jewel of Tubman's air quality upgrades: the air handler, which sits across a courtyard from the dance studio.
The air handler has two main doors on it. One opens into a chamber with rows of filters on each side, intended to dramatically curtail chemicals and particulates entering Tubman.
"This is what you’d have in hospitals," Simonson said. "There are none of these inside of schools in Oregon, that we know of.”
The second door goes to a room of fans, which draw air through the air handler. They pull air both from the outdoors and from inside the school, so that the air is actually filtered twice before being emitted back outside.
"This thing is unreal," Simonson said. "The only place I've seen anything anywhere close to this was an engineering building ."
Harriet Tubman Middle School and poor air quality have a long history. The Tubman building went up in 1952, initially as Eliot Elementary School. Interstate 5 was built next to it several years later.
Tubman's air quality was closely studied for the first time in 2009, when the Environmental Protection Agency put air monitors nearby. At the time, the Harriet Tubman Young Women's Academy was operating at the building. The magnet school closed in 2012 due to low enrollment. The air quality was not widely discussed.
Later, Tubman would be the temporary home for staff and students from Faubion K-8, as Faubion's Northeast Portland campus was rebuilt, through funding from a 2012 bond measure. Again, air quality was not widely discussed as a concern.
Air quality surfaced as a big concern in 2016, when PPS parents were already on edge over the district's handling of lead in school drinking water. City and state regulators were also wrestling at the time with reports of toxic air emissions from glass manufacturers. One of those implicated glassmakers was in North Portland, not far from Tubman.
At the same time, PPS had proposed reopening Tubman as a neighborhood middle school drawing students from four K-8 school communities that would shrink to elementary schools: majority white Irvington and Sabin schools and more ethnically diverse King and Boise-Eliot-Humboldt schools. A recent story in The Oregonian/OregonLive included Ron Herndon, an African-American civic leader, questioning the lack of outrage over the local air quality when Faubion, a school with a comparatively large population of African-American students, was operating out of Tubman.
Much like with the revelations about lead in school drinking water, PPS leaders stumbled in their handling of the air quality issues at Tubman.
School board member Paul Anthony now says he passed along erroneous information to community members based on what he was hearing from district officials.
Anthony said he had been told the air filtration at the school was good.
“I and a lot of other people were lied to," he said. "It was not remotely acceptable.”
Last fall, PPS board members pulled back from opening Tubman and asked for more information. They called on district staff to consider other buildings that could work as a middle school for inner North and Northeast Portland, if Tubman couldn't be cleaned up adequately.
By spring, PPS had a new air quality study and had committed millions of dollars to a new air system.
After two years fixing hazardous facilities, district leaders are ready to refocus inside the classroom.
Tubman principal Natasha Butler said that on the first day, parents had a simple message: “We made it,” she said.
Butler’s focus is on school culture rather than the quality of the air. She's excited to help teachers collaborate as "thought partners," and to get students to adjust from their cozy K-8s to the big, challenging middle school.
But "we made it" doesn't mean "we're done" in Butler's mind, nor for the Tubman parents from whom she's hearing. After years of limited offerings for middle-grade students at K-8s, Butler said parents want to see the electives and challenging courses.
"I think our parents are ready for the change. They've embraced the change. They just want to see if we're going to deliver," Butler said.
Butler made the statements alongside Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who both used the phrase "promises delivered," to describe the first day at Harriet Tubman Middle School.
Butler doesn't expect to compromise the middle school experience for her students based on her school's location. PSU researchers recommended limiting the time students spend outside in their recent report. Butler said her middle schoolers will go outdoors.
"The findings didn’t indicate that we should not be able to have students outside to do recess, to have gym outside," Butler said. "In fact, that is the plan.”
Tubman is far from the only school in Portland along a high-traffic corridor. After spending millions overhauling one school ventilation system, PPS leaders expect to hear from parents at those other schools. But Guerrero said there’s a limit to what the district should do.
“I think it’s a statewide issue, to be frank," he said. "These aren’t the only schools near freeways here in Portland."
Officials noted that schools such as Lincoln High School and Kellogg Middle School are slated to get robust air filtering systems under plans voters approved in a 2017 bond measure.
"We should be talking about truck emissions standards and other topics," Guerrero said. "So if we do that kind of work, legislatively, we would have to worry less about the kind of air that our students are breathing.”