Venturing Out into the Community
On Monday, November 5, I attended the Portland Public School Board of Education
meeting. Part of the board meeting was dedicated to part of a series of check-ins with the various high school clusters around the city, and that night was the Grant Cluster presentation. The Grant High School cluster includes Alameda Elementary School, Beaumont Middle School, Beverly Cleary School (K-8), DaVinci Arts Middle School, and Sabin K-8 IB School, and serves
approximately 6,000 students. At the meeting, the principals from each school came forward to
share “insight around challenges and accomplishments” around the instructions, interventions,
and educational equity for white and minority students.
Grant High School – A Change In Culture: From “Punitive” to a Team
One of the speakers that came in to talk on the Grant High School cluster’s behalf as the
principal of Grant High School, Vivien Orlen. A tall women with a mess of curls, she brought
with her a trophy, news of the school’s achievement in track, and her own list of
accomplishments and frustrations from her first few years at Grant.
The culture at Grant High School, she explained, was “punitive”; black students at Grant
High School were being suspended at a rate that was nineteen times higher than other students, and since suspension means that a student is removed from the school environment, countless educations were being disrupted for issues that were admittedly usually between staff and students. Ms. Orlen explained that she felt that Grant High School fell into the automation that busy schools often do: instead of looking at situations and incidents on a case-by-case basis, administrators and teachers were going by the book.
One the first things that Ms. Orlen tried was to change the culture of school and
encourage a community built on “trust, candor, and transparency”. The steps she outlined included listening/learning, initiating changes based on the information received, changing the program, and then starting the process over once again based on new situations and needs that come up.
Listening and learning from the students, teachers, and community was an important first
step; Ms. Orlen stressed that everyone has an opinion and also acknowledged that looking for
answers can bring up a lot of emotions, suggesting that it isn’t helpful to make teachers feel
badly for data and test scores. Instead, teachers need to be empowered within their classrooms
and their school; she formalized department leads within the building and made sure that the
teachers had professional development with instructional specialists. Counselors, Ms. Orlen said, were important voices, often acting as advocates for students whose parents are not advocating for them, and think of the students holistically. Above that, Ms. Orlen encouraged her staff to view themselves as part of the team, no matter if it were a formal or informal designation.
Other changes that Ms. Orlen has brought to her school include the development of
advanced courses. Rather than these courses be AP (advanced placement), Ms. Orlen has created a partnership between Grant High School and the neighboring Portland State University and Portland Community College. Teachers on staff that have Masters degrees in certain subjects are encouraged to submit their curriculum to these higher institutions and, upon approval, their courses become dual credit courses. Ms. Orlen does admit that there are tuition components to these courses, but both Portland State and PCC offer scholarships and reduced tuition. These “home-grown” courses allow both the teachers and the students to explore fields of study that are interesting to them at a more rigorous level; teachers also enjoy a higher level of control over their course.
Feeder Schools Reflect
Within the Grant High School cluster are several feeder schools – or schools where
students generally go on to attend Grant. One school, Sabin K-8, was one of the six schools that
moved from a designation of Satisfactory to Outstanding has recently been authorized as an
International Baccalaureate (or IB) school and its principal, Andrew Dauch, feels that this is
helping the school bring up the achievement gap between students through the in-depth work
required by IB unit writing. Still, the school has its own growing pains, stemming partially from the surrounding areas gentrification.One way that Sabin is working hard to support its minority students is through the development of Black Family Nights, coordinated by the Family Equity Group. As the gentrification continues to lower the number of minority students attending, Sabin is reaching out to engage black students and their families and the staff is working hard to establish communication plans that include a cultural component “to meet the needs of all cultures”. This has earned positive feedback from families who are reporting that they feel that they are better understood and that the door has been opened for honest discussion about the needs and desires of these students and families. Previously a Title One school, part of Sabin’s funding has been cut as the bar has been reset. Through communicating with the Parent-Teacher Association and its partners, the Sabin community was able to recognize that tutors were needed, particularly in math, and funding was provided.
Another school in the Grant cluster is Beaumont Middle School. As one of nine middle
schools in the PPS district, Beaumont has experienced an increase in students, from 456 to 558, and Principal Liz Casson-Taylor believes that her staff has taken on their task of educating this age group enthusiastically. This enthusiasm and energy has been supported by two years of professional development and the school has enjoyed an increase in meeting benchmarks: 89% of the students are meeting benchmarks in reading, 78% in math, and 60-70% in writing.
While proud of its achievements, Beaumont Middle School continues to look for ways to
increase its students understanding and mastery in writing, encouraging participation in a schoolwide writing festival and running book and movie reviews. It has also developed an “A/B” schedule; on one day, half of the class attends PE while the other half is in language arts. The smaller class size allows for students to receive more attention and one-on-one instruction from their teachers.
Community is also important to Beaumont: students enjoy a three-year relationship with
a full-time Closing Achievement Gap mentorship, SUN programs, and the school fosters
partnerships with the I Have a Dream program, Emerging Young Leaders program (for female
students), the 180 program (for male students), and counseling through the WEB program.
Beaumont also continues to look for more math support for its students and, like Grant High
School, has implemented a restorative justice program to keep students within the classroom.
A Sense of Pride
One thing that struck me at the end of the Grant cluster was the sense of pride that these
principals had for their school. There are issues that they experience – Ms. Orlen shared a story
about her frustration over receiving approval to use gray paint and how she had to go through a
chain of eight people before finding someone who could say yes – but none of these challenges
seem to be impossible for them to overcome. These principals seemed ready and able to not only lead their school but to draw in the support of the community surrounding them, and as a former Portland Public Schools student, their pride and faith in their schools became my pride and faith in their schools. I am excited to see their continued growth in the future.
What do you think of Grant High School’s educational equity work? Do you think that
their restorative justice work should be used in other schools? Some of the principals made the point about their coursework being rigorous despite their school not being a certified IB school — what do you think?
- How else can we challenge our students?
- How else can the community surrounding – and within – the Grant cluster continue to support their schools’ growth and achievement?