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Signs of Leadership and Culture Change at Portland Public Schools

November 1, 2017

Oregon Live Post

October 31, 2017

By The Oregonian Editorial Board

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It wasn't the most auspicious beginning for Portland Public Schools' superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. In his first few weeks on the job, Guerrero pitched a poorly-vetted proposal to close an alternative school for talented-and-gifted students. He then rescinded it amid backlash and sought to make amends with families he was meeting for the first time.

But that seemingly disastrous start actually bodes well for a district culture known for resisting change and dodging accountability. The episode shows that Guerrero is not afraid to challenge the status quo or admit mistakes, both of which will serve him well in figuring out how to remake the district. And in his apology to community members at Access Academy - the school he proposed dismantling - he walked a diplomatic line between acknowledging families' concerns and defending an overall philosophy that successful, specialized programs should be broadened to serve the greater student population.

This is only the beginning, of course, and the real tests of his leadership are yet to come, most notably in how the district reconfigures K-8s into elementary and middle schools. But Portlanders are getting a glimpse of Guerrero's approach to leadership and his willingness to make bold moves. At the same time, the recharged Portland School Board has already shown stronger governance and a sharper focus on students in the four months since members Julia Brim-Edwards, Rita Moore and Scott Bailey joined the board. While Portlanders should keep up the pressure, they should also recognize the welcome signs of a culture in the midst of change.

Editorial Agenda 2017

           

Boost student success
Get Oregon's financial house in order
Help our homeless
Honor our diverse values
Make Portland a city that works
Expand access to public record.

            Among them: The board's decision to convene a high-powered group of investigators to dig deep into the circumstances, policies, personnel decisions and other factors behind the mishandling of sexual-harassment complaints against longtime district educator Mitchell Whitehurst. As an extensive report by The Oregonian/OregonLive's Bethany Barnes showed, Whitehurst escaped discipline and serious investigation despite numerous allegations over the years by students and former students that he propositioned, ogled and harassed them. The sheer experience of the investigative team which includes Bob Weaver, former chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oregon, signals the sincerity of the board in deconstructing what happened, who was responsible and how to fix it. 

The board has been revamping the district's public-records policy with an emphasis on transparency and increasing its outreach to the community by holding meetings at area schools, bringing translators for non-English-speaking families and requiring the ombudsman to attend meetings to help address individuals' concerns. Even the tenor of meetings has improved dramatically as members treat another collegially, something sorely lacking under the previous board.

While Guerrero and the board are showing the right instincts in tackling the many problems facing the district, there are plenty of ways for them to go off the rails. The district's commitment to converting K-8s into elementary and middle schools to ensure that all students are getting a full suite of classes is firm. But how it achieves that is another challenge with logistical and political obstacles. Winning families' trust that the district can pull off the reconfiguration competently and fairly will require a lot of detailed data, steady communication and patience.

           And the district leadership must make clear over and over that transparency and accountability are non-negotiable. That message hasn't filtered down to some who continue to employ some of the same indefensible measures against scrutiny that contradict the board's stated direction. For example, district officials recently sought to avoid turning over public records kept by its ombudsman's office by arguing that the district-funded office, which is located within its headquarters, was somehow not a part of PPS, as The Portland Tribune's Beth Slovic reported. The argument didn't convince the Multnomah County District Attorney's office, which ordered the district to hand over the documents.

Reversing an entrenched culture that has routinely put adults' concerns above the educational and safety needs of students will take more than just a few months. But a change in culture starts with a change in leadership. And for the first time in a long time, Portland Public Schools has leadership focused in the right direction.

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