BIPOC only charter school to open in Portland

(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Out in Portland, families in minority communities have been struggling with educational challenges for their children the same as has been seen in most large cities. These problems have been further exacerbated by school shutdowns and remote learning, though families of all races have been hit in that fashion. But one group in Portland has now taken action in a questionable way to address these issues. In the fall of this year, they will open HOLLA Public Charter School. It will be a quasi-private but somewhat public school operating in conjunction with one of the local school districts. But here’s the twist. They will only be accepting BIPOC students (Black, Indigenous, people of color). No children from Asian, white or Jewish families need apply. (

Portland has been labeled the “whitest big city” in America. That can make it difficult for some BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) kids to see themselves reflected in their communities and schools.

That’s why there’s an effort to make a space specifically for BIPOC students where they feel seen, heard and their experiences are reflected in curriculum.

“It’s very hard to learn when you don’t see yourself in the curriculum. You don’t see yourself in educational model,” said Eric Knox, executive director and founder of HOLLA, a nonprofit in Portland that pairs youth of color with mentors of color.

To be clear, I can sympathize with the need for people to do something… anything… to raise the bar in schools and that’s particularly true in economically challenged neighborhoods. In New York City they have flushed incredible amounts of money into the public schools in minority-majority neighborhoods and barely managed to move the needle in terms of academic performance and college acceptance rates. So there might be something to this experiment in Portland.

But with all of that said, there are some glaringly obvious questions about this project that need to be addressed. First of all, since HOLLA is being set up “in conjunction with the Reynolds School District,” presumably there is taxpayer money going into the effort. Not for nothing, but since when do you get to exclude students from publicly funded schools based exclusively on race? You’ll notice that they aren’t including Asian families in this program. And do I really need to add the most obvious question? Can you imagine what would happen if someone said they were starting a charter school that was only open to white students?

Moving past those issues, what sort of education will students at HOLLA be receiving? Eric Knox of the HOLLA nonprofit mentoring project (which looks like a very promising program, by the way) is quoted in the article talking about the curriculum at the new school. Knox said there will be “a very strong hip-hop focus around our kids’ learning style.” (Excuse me. Did you say… hip-hop?)

“[Like] what does it mean to keep it real? […] What does it mean the grind? How to handle your haters,” Knox said.

Knox insists that the curriculum will still be “tied to math and literacy,” but hip-hop is “what our kids understand.” Has anyone with an actual background in childhood education looked this over? Perhaps it’s going to be better than the article’s description makes it sound, but a solid education really needs to be more than “tied to” math and literacy. That’s sort of the backbone of the educational process, though it would be nice to see science and the full range of STEM skills included. I’m just not seeing how a focus on “handling your haters” and “grinding” relates to the knowledge base and skill set required to get you into either a college or at least a technical school. The students may be learning to “keep it real” but they may wind up being “real” in a minimum wage job if they don’t receive a substantial education.

This should prove to be an interesting social experiment if nothing else. And it’s definitely true that we’re going to need to try some new ideas to rescue our public school system, assuming that’s still even possible. I suppose we’ll have to let these folks give HOLLA a try and judge it by the results in a few years.