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School equity talks: What now?

PPS banks on training to close racial achievement gap in schools


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: NICK FOCHTMAN - Karanja Crews, a PPS teacher, is bringing the author of 'Courageous Conversations' to Portland.Karanja Crews remembers growing up in the 1990s, the dawn of Portland’s crack cocaine epidemic and gang wars between the Bloods and Crips.

He saw young black men all around him — including his father — succumb to drug addiction and incarceration.

Then one day when he was 12 he had an epiphany after surviving a drive-by shooting at his aunt’s house. “They came by and sprayed the house,” he says. “I don’t know how it missed me. That’s when I knew I was here for a reason.”

Today Crews, 35, is a Portland Public Schools teacher who can’t help but put race at the front and center of his teaching every day.

“I have to be culturally relevant every day,” says Crews, who’s taught for three years at Vernon School and has been a teacher in Portland and Beaverton for nine years in all. “My current success is deeply rooted in my struggle of where I come from, and my future success is rooted in my day-to-day struggle as a young black male in this society.”

This fall, he’s bringing Glenn Singleton — Bay Area founder of the “Courageous Conversations about Race” equity training — to Portland to speak at the fourth annual Teaching with Purpose conference.

PPS has contracted with Singleton’s Pacific Educational Group since 2007, to the tune of $1.2 million, plus another $1.2 million in costs, for substitutes to fill in for teachers attending the training.

District leaders are preparing to eventually disengage from the contracts by building their internal capacity to lead the equity work. But it’s not over yet.

Next week PPS is beginning another yearlong contract for $132,000, which ramps down from the $189,000 contract wrapping up now.

So it might be safe to ask, now what?

Crews hopes to work with Singleton to answer that question. “The conversations have been great, but I think we’re ready to go beyond the conversations,” Crews said in an interview on the last day of school. “We’re practitioners. You can give us the tools, and we’ll use them.”

Nowadays there’s no shortage of scandals that are intertwined with race- and culture-related differences.

Food Network celebrity Paula Deen, who grew up in the South, was fired after admitting to using N-word in the wake of a discrimination lawsuit.

And Mayor Charlie Hales’ public safety adviser, Baruti Artharee, is under investigation for an offhand remark to county Commissioner Loretta Smith about her appearance; both are black.

The racial achievement gap — the disparities in student achievement that fall along racial lines — has arguably become the biggest challenge in urban education today; it’s even been called the top civil rights issue of this generation.

Signs of success

District leaders are righteous in their defense of the racial equity work.

They say it is working, and cite two points of data: Milestones Framework data and graduation rates that show a narrowing racial achievement gap.

For example, there was a 23-point gap between black and white students who were “On track to graduate” two years ago; last year it shrank to 15 points. For Hispanic students the 22-point gap two years ago closed to 18 points.

For graduation rates, PPS made history last year as black students posted rates the same or above their white counterparts at five high schools: Franklin, Grant, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Wilson. At Grant, Hispanic students also posted a rate (84 percent) higher than white students (83 percent).

The improvements could be attributed to any number of changes in the schools, of course. So who’s to say the equity work is responsible? It might not matter.

“Can we say it’s causal? Probably not,” says Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor of Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin who coined the term “culturally relevant teaching,” and will be the headliner at the fall Teaching with Purpose conference in Portland.

“It does matter when you pay attention to something, as opposed to being random,” she told the Tribune by phone this week.

Ladson-Billings isn’t familiar with PPS but was invited by Crews to be the headliner at the October conference in Portland.

Billings works with school districts on orienting themselves toward this new way of thinking, with a focus on race. And she’s familiar with people who are impatient.

“The tendency is to look for a recipe; tell me what to do,” she says. “It’s less about a recipe than one who knows how to cook.”

So if it’s working, why does so much skepticism still linger?

Work flies under radar

It might be a lack of knowledge of the full breadth of work under way. In 2001, PPS created an Office of Equity, staffed by 7.6 full-time equivalent employees. Led by Chief Equity Officer Lolenzo Poe, they’ve been working to raise racial consciousness on three levels: with administrators, teachers and parents.

Schools are in various stages of the work; the ones that are the most deeply engaged are 11 “Beacon” schools: Boise-Eliot, Cesar Chavez, Irvington and Vestal K-8 schools; Hosford, Jackson and Mt. Tabor middle schools; Franklin and Jefferson high schools; and Open Meadow and DART alternative schools.

Each of the schools have teams of teachers working to create lessons so that all of their students will benefit.

Next year, 18 more schools will launch more of those CARE teams, as they’re called.

At the parent level, several schools including Irvington K-8 and Sunnyside Environmental have gone through the two-day “Beyond Diversity” traning and begun working on equity issues at their schools.

Those PASS teams, as they’re called, will soon expand throughout the district.

PPS leaders also hope the equity work will impact discipline rates: in particular, the disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions between white students and students of color.

A few of the Beacon schools, like Irvington and Boise-Eliot/Humboldt, have begun to see some progress with their data. District leaders hope to build on their success.

With so many components, who’s in charge of tracking the progress?

It’s up to a PPS Equity and Inclusion Council, comprised of eight members: the superintendent, the chief equity officer and six other senior administrators. The group is staffed by the heads of four PPS departments.

Equity coordinator Kehaulani Minzghor says the work with Singleton has been invaluable, although the goal from the start has been to disengage and lead it internally.

The Pacific Educational Group has started to facilitate conversations with the teachers’ union and the school board. One piece that hasn’t occurred yet is at the student level.

“I don’t know whether we’ll engage with him next year, but I hope we’ll see the student advocacy piece,” Minzghor says.

Getting the message out

Crews, the Vernon teacher, wasn’t aware of the work that is under way, and says many of his peers aren’t either. “One of the reasons for this conference is to try to bridge this gap between what the district is doing and how teachers can implement the framework,” he says. As a Portland Association of Teachers representative at Vernon, he says, “The more collaboration there is with more teachers’ union, the more buy-in they’ll have in the equity work.”

This year Crews will take a year off from teaching to teach his 3- and 4- year old how to read before they start kindergarten, focus on his doctoral studies, and promote culturally relevant teaching across the country with an international tour (he’s had inquiries from Jamaica).

He’ll do so through the nonprofit he founded in 2008, called the Journey to Freedom Project.

Based at the Umoja Center at Northeast 17th Avenue and Alberta Street, it includes a Saturday program called P.I.T School (Persevering Into Triumph) which served 35 kids last year and will start back in fall.

“I’m so extremely passionate about this work,” Crews says. “It’s long overdue.”

In recent years he’s also made the board game an integral part of his lessons at Vernon as well as at the former Jefferson Young Men’s Academy, where he taught for three years.

Getting back to his roots, Crews also is creating a “conscious rap” mixed tape that will include excerpts of songs from the 1990s and inspirational messages for youth. Finally, he’s working on a second album with a group of local artists and stic.man, the Atlanta rapper and activist who is half of the hip-hop duo Dead Prez.

Hip-hop is a universal language for many adolescents, of any race, he says. Especially for his generation, “It was speaking to us, planting the seeds in us.”

He’ll take the music and board game on tour next year to promote his message. Mississippi Studios will host a Dead Prez benefit concert as a fundraiser for the effort on Oct. 12.

To Crews, culturally relevant teaching is to engage, empower, uplift, inspire a child. “I don’t have a silver bullet,” he says. “But it’s a bullet. It’s a tool to build relationships.”

For more information, www.teachingwithpurposeconference.com, www.journeytofreedomproject.org.


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Vivian Orlen, who just left her post as Grant High School principal, has some parting thoughts about the Portland Public Schools' equity process.

Outgoing principal questions huge equity training focus

Vivian Orlen has been dealing with race, among other issues, as principal of Grant High School for the past three years.

Fifteen percent of Grant’s students are black, which is the largest black population for any of the district’s seven comprehensive high schools.

During her tenure at Grant, Orlen (who is white) has instituted changes — like doing away with popular AP classes in order to offer other programs — that have rankled the school’s white middle-class parents.

And they let her know it. She received so many emails that accused her of “ruining the school,” “violating very important traditions,” and “taking the place down,” that she’s saved them in a folder and is filing them away with the purpose of writing a book, she told the Tribune in an interview a few days before she left for New York.

It would be titled something like “Emails to a principal; reflections on a community,” Orlen said.

It would include the surprising twist: by the end of the first year, Orlen says she received a rush of emails from many of the same parents and students that thanked her for making the hard decisions. “A parent thanked me for giving voice to her ‘average’ child,” she says.

Yet what remains an enigma to her is the city’s attitudes and actions around race.

“I will never fully appreciate and understand the history in this city around race,” Orlen, 50, told the Tribune in an interview at her office last Wednesday. “I do think I’m at a disadvantage sometimes. At the same time my own experiences around Courageous Conversations is that things just feel so conversational. I’m action-oriented. For me to do the work it has to be action.”

As a principal, she says, she hasn’t felt the equity trainings she experienced have allowed her to “turn key” her experience in her building.

“For me, there’s no connection between the investment PPS has brought in with this training and the work I’ve done here,” she says.

District leaders say a systematic transformation around equity doesn’t happen overnight; they’ve been laying the groundwork for change.

Orlen thinks it’s also strange that if equity is the district’s top priority, why they’ve left it completely to the principals to deliver it on their own. In fact the uneven delivery has been the source of angst in many buildings, as teachers say their principals have been a bit overzealous.

In the end, Orlen says, she’d rather see PPS invest in the tools teachers need to succeed — whether it be funding books or pens or time to plan — than in the warm and fuzzy Courageous Conversations framework.

“I remain concerned about Courageous Conversations being a strategy. I don’t think that’s going to be the lever that makes the difference,” she says.

So what is the lever, in her mind? “Strong, bold leadership,” Orlen says. “Be decisive. Give teachers the tools they need to work in the 21st century. ... I think the difference needs to be in the classrooms, not disconnected in this thing we call Courageous Conversations.”

Things are different in N.Y.

Orlen says she wanted to stay a fourth year at Grant, so she could see next year’s senior class (freshmen when she started) through their graduation.

But an opportunity came that was too good to pass up, she says. She was offered a job with the New York Department of Public Education as an achievement coach, working with first- and second-year principals to help them improve.

Her first year on the job here, she recalls, she had a coach whom she didn’t see as beneficial.

In New York, things are different, she says: There’s a framework to follow, with expectations, and at the end of the year the teachers will assess her performance and decide whether to re-up.

She’ll return to her husband, Alan Dichter, who worked in PPS administration before being laid off last summer, and her younger son, who attends Metropolitan Learning Center and would’ve been starting his freshman year at Grant.

Her older son is a sophomore at a Russian ballet academy in Washington, D.C., and Orlen says she wants to be near him.

She delayed announcing her departure from Grant High School until the end of school because she didn’t want to be a lame duck, she says.

Having been a teacher and administrator for an equal amount of time (13 years), Orlen says she does want to be a principal again, but not right away.

PPS began the process of finding a new principal at Grant with a community “listening session” last Wednesday evening. About 70 community members showed up to weigh in on what district leaders should look for in a new leader.

It’s these types of public process Orlen isn’t sure what to make of, even after three years in Portland.

“It is overprocess here,” she says. “I don’t think we have the time for it. Kids are in school for a finite period of time.”

Orlen thinks her successor should be a seasoned high school principal already familiar with PPS but who’ll look at Grant with a fresh pair of eyes. “They need to be able to navigate the glaciers and own their decisions,” she says, “knowing they’re not going to make everybody happy.”