The cafeteria at Jefferson High School is not exactly a monument to the glories of public education. Fluorescent lights, faded Garfield posters, and a broken wall clock evoke gloomier associations with urban decline and freezer-burned tater tots. Still, the crowd I join at the North Portland school on a frigid fall evening could serve as a modern Norman Rockwell depiction of civic-mindedness: a few hundred strong, roughly equal parts black and white, with Mandarin, Vietnamese, Somali, Russian, and Spanish translators suggesting a liberal sprinkling of “other.”

We are gathered to hear Portland Public Schools (PPS) officials explain how they plan to fix the city’s high schools: by turning their back on the past decade or so of ed-reform trendiness, in which everyone from the Gates Foundation to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted the way to fix the schools was to make them small—really small—and specialized. But we are being told that Portland is different. Here, the schools need to become bigger.

They surely need to become something. Better would be a start. Carole Smith, the district’s superintendent, explains the problem. PPS once educated 13,000 high schoolers; now it teaches about 11,000, spread across nine comprehensive campuses. Almost half of those students fail to graduate in four years. But the figures only hint at the real issue: Portland has not one high school system, but two. Some kids go to schools that work and, consequently, are packed to the gills. Others attend shrinking institutions, where art, advanced classes, and marching bands are forgotten luxuries. Who goes where is increasingly determined by economic class and race. Eighty-four percent of white PPS students attend schools that offer specialized college-prep programs; barely half of minority kids, and less than half of all poor kids, have the same opportunities. Steve Rawley, one of my North Portland neighbors and author of the blog PPS Equity (ppsequity.org), puts matters in sharp perspective: “Why do we have one kind of school for wealthy, mostly white students and another kind of school for poor and mostly black and Hispanic kids? It’s not just wrong—it’s a serious civil rights violation.”

The situation evolved, in part, from the district’s generous transfer policy: students can leave their neighborhood school for any other one, provided there’s room. Higher-achieving, wealthier students flee ailing schools, and poor schools lose teachers, classes, and programs as their populations plummet (schools receive money on a per-student basis). Jefferson is Exhibit A, with about 600 students rattling around its campus this year. By contrast, Grant, just across an imaginary line in Northeast Portland, is crammed with 1,600 kids. At Grant, students can take four years of Spanish, French, Latin, or Japanese. Jefferson’s kids get one choice: Spanish, which is offered only through the third year.

The district has spent 18 months pondering this problem, Smith explains. And its solution is achingly simple, strikingly traditional, and very contentious: make kids go to their neighborhood high school.

PPS proposes an overhaul—beginning in 2011—that would create six to eight comprehensive campuses, each roughly the same size, each offering a full academic menu. Each would serve somewhere between 1,200 and 1,350 kids. Small special-focus and alternative schools would fill out the system, but the neighborhood schools would be every-one’s default option. Transferring between them would become more or less impossible.

“[In the current system], every school has been given maximum autonomy,” says Sarah Singer, the project manager of the redesign. “We don’t want to be overly rigid, but there has to be some consistency.”