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School leadership stumbles over race

Metropolitan Learning Center revolt swirls around power struggle, focus on racial issues


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - MLC students and parents gather and link arms to show solidarity for their longstanding successful program. The school is known for its welcoming environment. One of their goals is to attract more families of color. To anyone unfamiliar with the Metropolitan Learning Center in Northwest Portland, Portland author Rebecca Skloot sums it up like this: “MLC didn’t give grades, students got to design courses for themselves, teachers went by their first names, we sat on the floor instead of lined up in desks, and we read books like Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ instead of traditional history books.”

It was at MLC that Skloot learned about HeLa cells, the basis for her 2010 New York Times bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

MLC, at Northwest 20th Avenue and Glisan Street, has been a beloved Portland institution for 45 years. It’s in a category of its own as Portland Public Schools’ only K-12 alternative school, serving 455 students from across the district. And it's not the only K-12 school — there's also Trillium Public Charter School.

As an alternative school, it’s become a high-performing safe haven for kids who don’t do well in a typical classroom — serving many with social and learning disabilities, LBGTQ youth and others who might otherwise be bullied or left behind.

There’s been no drama to speak of. Until now.

Last month, during the final week of school, a group of MLC parents staged a quiet revolt, collecting a petition with 100 signatures and presenting it to their principal and her supervisors.

They say MLC administrators have been making changes to the distinctive nature of their school without the community involvement the school has been known for.

After months of trying to work out the issue with PPS leaders, parents took their case to the school board on Wednesday night. It was the board’s first meeting with its three new members (two of them elected and one student representative). And this was the second parent petition drawn up by members of a school community this year. A segment of North Portland’s Beach School has been polarized by their leader and still others are brewing under the radar.

So what gives? Why so much angst about principal leadership lately?

PPS Regional Administrator Sascha Perrins, who has been in education for 18 years, points to the role of social media, as well as shrinking demands and increasing scheduling-related pressures by the district and state with the implementation of the Common Core Standards.

“This feels new to me, the intensity with which the people are able to lobby and move,” he says.

In his role overseeing MLC Principal Macarre Traynham, Perrins says he’s looked into parents’ concerns and thinks some are legitimate, while some are overblown or the result of miscommunication.

“We depend on our principals to make instructional decisions,” he says. “We believe Principal Traynham is doing a good job, and we also want to honor the culture and traditions of all of our schools.

“We value and appreciate parent involvement and want to support both the principal and the MLC community.”

Yet MLC supporters have been shocked at the change because of their longtime culture of collaboration and autonomy.

“MLC has for 45 years been able to do extremely well by not deciding to follow the prescription of the district,” says state Rep. Lew Frederick, a former MLC parent and teacher at the school, whose late father-in-law, Amasa Gilman, founded the school and was its first principal.

“If they decide MLC is going to somehow buckle under a particular approach to learning, they’re trying to dismantle what’s been an effective program at the school,” he says.

Angry forums

While some of the MLC story is unique to its school, it also spotlights two universal issues across PPS, both powder kegs in their own right.

One of them is principal accountability. The other is race.

Traynham, a former vice principal at Benson, Jefferson and Lincoln who just finished her second year at MLC, is black. She leads a school where four out of five students are white.

Traynham did not respond to a request for comment from the Tribune.

In their public testimony, parents said they’ve felt that their program is being chipped away by the administration. In interviews with the Tribune, parents add that Traynham frequently brings up race or race-related cultural differences in ways that baffle or offend them. They say the program might be changing due to the administration's desire to attract more students of color.

Most speculate that there are many reasons MLC has been traditionally white, as are most of the district’s focus-option schools. There are are economic barriers, like transportation, and there’s a separate application process that takes place outside of the district’s enrollment lottery. Twenty-four students are accepted each year, evenly divided between boys and girls, and siblings get priority.

Parents say they’d love to increase the racial diversity at their school, but don’t want their program changed in order to do so — as they’ve felt the administration has been trying to do.

Perrins, who is white, says the enrollment process at MLC could be one of the issues the community takes up in the fall through its site council, the parent-teacher-student group that meets regularly.

Parents said they have been participating in the site council as well as the principal’s Friday morning “Tea with Traynham,” but those forums have only made them angrier.

“If I really felt like the community was coming to these decisions, I would feel comfortable,” says Donna Martin, parent of an MLC student and MLC graduate. “But what we’re getting is we’re being told ‘We’re collaborating with you by telling you what we just decided.’ It’s not the same thing.”

Parents had asked for an external mediator to come in. Instead, Higgens offered up Reiko Williams, the district’s family and community engagement coordinator.

Williams, who is black, is one of the district’s facilitators in the “Beyond Diversity, Courageous Conversations about Race” trainings.

Like Williams, Traynham is deeply entrenched in Courageous Conversations, which began at the top and is just starting to be introduced to parents.

Traynham was one of 93 PPS administrators, teachers and staff who traveled to the weeklong 2012 Summit for Courageous Conversations last November in San Antonio, where she co-led a presentation called “Uncle Tom, Banana, Oreo, Coconut, Apple ... People of Color, We Need to Talk.”

The lecture focused on the “derogatory terms used to describe people of color who are perceived as ‘acting white,’ “ according to the program.

One of the tenets of Courageous Conversations is that white people must confront their “white privilege” and recognize the cultural differences between blacks and whites.

The training dictates that the color of a person’s skin must be considered and called out at every level in order to consciously eliminate systemic racism.

At MLC and at other schools where a mostly white parent group complains about a principal of color, PPS leaders have cited “cultural differences” as one factor, which offends some.

“The district has made it about race,” says Dana Brenner-Kelly, parent of two kids at MLC. “There’s no acknowledgment that there’s any issues related to the oversight of the administration.”

An honest conversation

PPS leaders defend the use of Courageous Conversations but admit there’s a communication gap between those who speak the language and those who don’t.

It makes for lots of awkwardness. “Some think it’s racist, white people ganging up on a black principal,” says Lee Gordon, a 1974 alum of MLC who has had three children at the school and who grew up in a family of civil rights activists. “That makes it much harder to bring about change.”

Gordon is all for appointing educators of color to top positions in the schools and district, to make the system reflective of the city. He’s also eager to promote MLC to communities of color.

But he has questions about PPS’ motivations in appointing a first-time principal to such a complicated post. That’s why the MLC parents’ petition doesn’t call for Traynham’s ouster; it asks for mediation, to give them a chance to collaborate and work it out.

“I’m sure there are white principals who need to be fired and black principals who need to be promoted,” Gordon says. “But this isn’t about color;

it’s about the right kind of leadership.”

Stella Kerl-McClain, an MLC mom of two, is a Southwest Portland psychologist and professor of counseling who’s taught about diversity for 12 years. She’s also Hispanic, and says she’s mystified by the Courageous Conversations’ focus on race and “white privilege.”

She says the framework is outdated and doesn’t help in situations such as MLC, which she calls a model power structure.

“MLC just shines in terms of talking about LBGTQ differences,” she says. “We are the best voice for a really unheard population in the district.”

Rather than fixate on the color of a person’s skin, Kerl-McClain says, the district should be looking at power structures. In her own classes, she uses a term called “intersectionality,” which examines racism as well as sexism, homophobia and other types of social inequality.

In the case of Portland schools, she says, “I wonder if the use of race is a strategy to silence people. That’s what’s happening. The more they talk about race, the more it makes people afraid to say more. They don’t want to be seen as racist. It’s pretty effective in Portland, where we’re so liberal and progressive.”

Like many MLC parents, Kerl-McClain can’t see putting her children anywhere else. She did research and found it to be the perfect fit. She and her husband have devoted themselves to volunteering at the school, made the commitment to drive across town and have been part of all of the contentious discussions.

What offends her the most is the way race is distracting from the real issues at hand.

“I believe it is about race. Everything is about race. We can’t escape it,” she says. “But they’re taking the things we object to and including race as part of them, and saying because you object to it, it’s racism. Rather than have an honest conversation, which is what Courageous Conversations tries to do.”