Who gets to choose and who does not

Last week Madison High School received the news of the departure of our principal to a job in the central office. With that news came the announcement of the new appointee as principal. This announcement did not come from the mouth of our Principal as we were to wait for Human Resources personnel to make the announcement.

While we were waiting for HR to show, I posed the question addressing the issue of interviewing candidates for replacement administration given that there was quite an elaborate interview process when our current principal was hired to take the job at Madison. I was told to ask this question of our representative from Human Resources who had not shown to play her role in the flurry of administrative announcements taking place at Madison.

When HR arrived I posed the same question and was told in so many words that our superintendent, Carole Smith, felt that the new appointee was the best fit for Madison teachers, students and community. She became quite coy with all of us in the room and would not tell us the name of the new principal saying that there were others to be told first. We were told that HR would be coming for the express purpose of telling us all who would be leading us next year so there was a degree of confusion and anger in the room. I left to help with a track meet but not before saying to the room in general that I felt manipulated and gamed and would enjoy spending time with the real patrons of this district, the children.

We were also told at this same meeting that the current administrative team asked central office for additional administrative support for next year. Astounded at this announcement given our projected enrollment of 822 + students for next year, I reminded those present that when we started 11 years ago at Madison there were 1392 students, one principal and two vice principals.

Next year we will have two counselors and when I started there were five counselors.

Seeking additional administrative support beyond the one principal and one VP allocated by central office seems beyond unreasonable given the cuts we are expecting in the building for next year. Today I opened an email from saying that the principal staring that we are to receive an additional VP as well as an additional .59 FTE for teachers but that we still will lose 11.25 FTE for next year.

Madison, in the years that I have been a counselor here, has seen a very steep decline in enrollment. The demographics have gone from primarily middle class to predominantly working class and immigrant families.

We have become a minority majority school with the usual plethora of problems that comes with poverty-affected, drug-affected, gang-affected families. The resilient children that come out of this milieu make Madison a place that is full of challenge as well as enormous reward for those of us who love the children and everything else that comes along with them.

Good teaching and lots of it is making a difference in the lives of these kids. Many are succeeding and they are succeeding because of the tenaciousness and the talents of the staff who care deeply for their students and expect more with less after being asked to do more with less. Teachers will have more students and there will be fewer elective offerings next year.

Madison does not need another vice-principal. Madison needs to keep as many of our teachers as possible so that class size does not explode. We have a thriving and amazing art and music program but when those are the only electives and art is cut by 1.5 teachers, class size grows and teaching becomes only about management, safety, and containment. There is not a lot of enrichment in an art class filled with 40 students and only half of them are there for the interest or the love of art. The rest are there because they have to be somewhere and there is no shop, automotive, metals, or business.

Madison. A poor school. Not a district powerhouse like Grant or Lincoln or Cleveland. No rich parents. No doctors in the house. No attorneys. We do have a new principal and she was chosen for us. Is she the best fit? Questionable when her reputation proceeds her. The word on the street is not good and her placement does not bode well for the year ahead. Is the staff being punished for our vote of no confidence for the outgoing principal? Did the expensive consultant hired to fix the discontent at Madison address the issue of leadership? Not once? Side stepping issues of leadership and leading us to the decision we had come to in the library the year before appeared to be a lesson in redundancy. Precious time spent for precious little only getting us to where we started: small schools are not working and we need to go back to a comprehensive model that shelters our 9th graders.

The new principal is not a principal from a successful comprehensive high school but a small school administrator. Her administrative background has been in elementary schools and possibly some time as a VP in a high school. Carole Smith owes it to Madison to explain to us how this particular administrator is the best fit for Madison.

Would Lincoln High School ever experience the indignities of a Madison? Would Carole Smith drop a principal on the heads of those West Side parents and students, especially one who comes with little experience in bringing schools together, working collaboratively, sharing governance? Never! How about Grant or Cleveland or any of the other schools where there is a collective body of parents who are fortunate enough to have the luxury of time, money, and privilege to assert their basic rights as parents and patrons of the district. Madison deserves better as there is a lot of potential out here on the East side of this city.

There were at least two capable and qualified administrators that could have moved into the principal’s position with proven track records for being people who respect and care about teachers and the contributions they make to student success.

My lament is for the waste at the top and the loss of the potential for empowering a staff that has felt neglected for years. Moving bad leaders from one building to the other or to central office has a ripple effect on students and when those students are damaged by the hand they have been dealt in life the ripples become tidal waves. I am grateful for the tremendous teachers on this staff who stay in spite of how hard it gets year after year. I am grateful for the students who show up, graduate, win scholarships and awards in spite of their circumstances.

We all deserve better and sending us a stranger and tacking on an additional administrator deserves only scorn and shame to those who make decisions without knowing the real heart and soul of what a school like Madison was, is and could be. I am not alone in saying no thanks for the extra administrator and no thanks for another schools reject.

David Colton is a high school counselor and a former English and drama teacher.


Getting High Schools Right

In the models for high schools, I see two things that are not being addressed: (1) race/class differences that drive people apart and send some families fleeing from their neighborhood schools, and (2) the reasons why kids drop out of high school. If the design does not address one of the major reasons why families flee, and if it does not address why kids drop out, then the unintended consequences of the current enrollment and transfer policy will be worsened, not improved.

Let me start with race/class differences.

Today, kids in Jefferson are disproportionately low-income and black, whereas in Roosevelt they are disproportionately low-income black and Hispanic. Kids in Lincoln are disproportionately affluent and white. So if we support Model A or B, won’t Lincoln continue to be an affluent white school, Jefferson a low-income black school, and Roosevelt a low-income black and Hispanic school? Since the demographics of the schools are largely reflective of the neighborhoods, then you are likely going to promote racially and economically segregated schools. Is this OK as long as all the schools are high quality?

But given the challenges that schools face that have high concentrations of poverty, can they really be equal in terms of teaching and learning outcomes and produce environments that promote educational excellence? Schools with high concentrations of poverty will need more assistance (e.g., more funding to create smaller class sizes and more guidance counselors), and they may face more challenges. If the additional assistance is not provided and the challenges not met, my concern is that students will want to flee these schools, no matter what their offerings are.

As you recall, not so long ago there were comprehensive high schools and middle schools in low-income areas in PPS. What happened to them?

Students fleeing their low-income neighborhood schools: we all know this has been the unintended consequence of the enrollment and transfer policy. So what are the new models going to do to prevent this from happening?

I would recommend that a program at all of the schools be established that deals explicitly with the issues of racism, poverty, and multiculturalism. If we take the idea of student academies included in the Model A design, these groups of students could be racially and economically diverse. Part of their work together would involve periodic guided conversations with a teacher/facilitator in which the students would discuss racism and poverty and inter-cultural communication. An example of this sort of program is Anytown, sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice.

The design would acknowledge the challenge of nurturing and sustaining a diverse learning community and would take the challenge head on. The design would also acknowledge that “white flight” has happened before and can just as easily happen again. So it must take this phenomenon into consideration and deal with it explicitly.

In this way, the high schools will lead the way in promoting larger conversations about how we can nurture and sustain diversity in the larger Portland community. In the end, our high school students would become community role models.

Finally, let me turn to why kids drop out of school.

According to a 2006 Gates Foundation study (1.1 MB PDF) on why kids drop out, nearly half of the kids surveyed said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting. These young people reported being bored and disengaged from high school. So do the designs increase or decrease interest and engagement? Part of the challenge here is that state law requires that core requirements be met in 9th and 10th grade, with very little room for students to choose classes of interest. Even if the new designs offer everything from anthropology to zoology, the students will not benefit from these diverse offerings until later. So can they wait that long to learn about what interests them? I would recommend an examination of the state law and push for fewer core requirements in 9th and 10th grade.

Another one of the other major reasons cited for why kids drop out is the feeling that no one cared about them. So how do these models promote caring? How do these models allow for teachers to get to know kids and to care for them and care about them? High school teachers currently have 130 to 150 students each. How much can be expected of them in this model? We know that a great teacher is often the critical difference for why kids succeed. So how do these models promote great teachers and great teaching?

If you went with Model A or B, you’d have to hire a lot more teachers to reduce class size and you’d have to budget and schedule for team-based professional development. These are the sorts of critical success factors that a teacher colleague of mine mentioned. As he said, this is not just about “effective structures,” the focus the district has chosen to take. You really do have to consider “Effective People” and “Effective Teaching and Supports” at the same time, the two other areas the district mentioned but has not focused on. Understood that you start with one, but once an “Effective Structure” has been chosen, then these other factors need equal if not more time and consideration.

So I’d like to to slow down the process and take the time to get this done right. We’ve already been through one very hurried, very unplanned redesign process with the K-8 reconfiguration. Let’s not have another. If we don’t redesign our high schools to solve the problems that are inherent in them, then what’s the point?

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.