Group blasts Beach principal for unfilled jobs, poor morale

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTLAND SUZUKI PROJECT - The Portland Suzuki Project at Beach School helped raise money this summer to continue music at the North Portland school. Some Beach parents are taking their unhappiness about the schools leadership to a districtwide group.The quality of school leadership continues to be a major theme for Portland Public Schools as the new academic year kicks off.

At a few schools, concerns about the principal’s leadership have reignited and have made for an awkward start to the school year.

Parents at Beach School in North Portland — who unsuccessfully petitioned to remove their principal in June — were surprised to find on the first day of school last week that there were no permanent sixth-grade teachers hired. There were just temporary substitutes teaching the classes. Students’ schedules said “teacher” for some subjects.

Four of Beach’s six middle-school teachers from last year did not return this fall. Two of their positions remained unfilled until the fifth day of school. Another teacher went on maternity leave this summer and her position has not been filled yet either.

Parents cite low morale and disputes with Principal Rebecca Torres as probable reasons for the exodus.

“The worst part is that no one in the administration communicated this anomaly to the parents, so we’re having to find out from our kids,” says Dawn Stanfield, parent of a sixth-grader.

This latest frustration comes after 125 parents signed a petition in June asking for Torres’ ouster; the school’s teachers had also returned critical feedback in a survey.

Yet it’s hardly the only school having such issues.

In late July, former Beach PTA President Aaron Smirl formed a group called Parents for Excellent Portland Principals. The Facebook group has 165 members, parents from schools across PPS who support a full review of the principal position and those who fill it.

“I now have first-hand experience in how powerful and protected the PPS principal position is and how quickly that person can change a school for better or worse,” Smirl says. “I hope that PEPP can be a gathering place for parents that have had their concerns dismissed.”

Back at Beach, numerous parents have told the Tribune that despite sending their children there since kindergarten, they are looking at other options.

Beach serves 600 students, slightly more than half in its neighborhood school program and the rest in a Spanish immersion program, which draws families from throughout the district.

Most of the parents who spoke with the Tribune about the latest issue come from the immersion program, having already demonstrated their freedom of school choice.

“I am outraged, and I do not become outraged easily,” says Sam Reese, who has a sixth-grader and fourth-grader at Beach.

Parent Jen Minko, with a sixth-grader, fourth-grader and 4-year-old who would attend Beach next fall, says she’s also looking elsewhere.

“I had never really considered what a principal’s role was and how important it is to the success of a school until last year,” Minko says. “In one year I have gone from loving my kids’ school to planning their escape.”

In response to parents’ shock about the teacher hiring delay, Torres sent a letter home on the second day of school, saying the delay was “due to the complexity of the requirements for the teachers to be highly qualified and to have the endorsements to teach at this level.”

She wrote that her hope was to fill the positions by early this week, the second week of school.

Torres is starting her second year at Beach. She previously was an assistant principal at Sellwood Middle School.

PPS Area Director Antonio Lopez, Torres’ supervisor, says the two positions have been complicated to fill.

“We’ve been looking for a while,” he says, noting that the district made an offer to one candidate, who ended up taking a job with another district at the last minute.

That’s why parents weren’t informed at the start of school.

“In retrospect we probably should’ve sent (the letter) on Wednesday,” he says. “We understand parents are upset. ... We just need a little bit of understanding and patience. We’re sympathetic, but I hope they’ll understand we’re doing as much as we can.”

Some teaching jobs hard to fill

One of the Beach positions requires a sixth-grade teacher to be fully bilingual (to teach English half the day and Spanish the other half), as well as “highly qualified” in language arts and social studies.

The other position requires teaching language arts, social studies, science and an endorsement in world languages.

“We struggle in the immersion program to find teachers,” Lopez says. “That’s why we’re working with the Portland Teacher Program to encourage more bilingual people to go into teaching.”

Lopez even went so far as to put a promise in writing. “I will pay for the endorsement if we find a candidate for the position at Beach,” he wrote on a piece of pink scrap paper after being questioned by one parent.

Lopez says the endorsements are required by the federal government, but parents counter that their principal should work to find creative staffing solutions, as many administrators are known to do.

Of the bigger issue, Lopez says, “We continue to do our best in terms of gaining people’s trust. “I’m hoping for suggestions on how we can do better.”

High note for violin program

On the upside at Beach, the school’s beloved violin program — feared to be eliminated last year because of a lack of funds — will be restored this fall.

The nonprofit Portland Suzuki Project music program began at Beach in 2008 with kindergarten students in the neighborhood school, and added a grade each year. Last year, 175 students participated. It’s been a bright spot for the school, helping to attract many neighborhood families.

Because the future of Beach was in limbo during the PPS enrollment balancing effort this past spring, it was impossible to raise funds to support the program, says Lori Lyons-Lachman, parent of a second-grader.

As a result, the future of the program was in jeopardy.

This summer Lyons-Lachman launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $20,000 to fund a volunteer coordinator position to keep the program afloat.

Despite the community’s best efforts, the campaign raised just $3,000. But a news story on Oregon Public Broadcasting attracted the attention of a local nonprofit that wanted to sponsor the effort.

“We’re going to take what they have raised and run with it,” says Dunja Marcum, director of the Music Access Project of Portland, which recently partnered with another nonprofit called Vibe of Portland. “It’s an easy fit for us to take it over.”

Marcum says the violin classes will start up the first week of October, meeting twice a week for 45 minutes to an hour. They will be offered to both neighborhood and immersion students during the school day for grades one through three, and after school for fourth- and fifth-graders because of scheduling constraints.

Many students have been participating since kindergarten, and one of her goals is to make it an established part of the Beach curriculum, Marcum says.

Students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals at Beach also will get to attend classes through the Metropolitan Youth Symphony on Saturdays, free of charge.

“Those kids are amazing,” Lyons-Lachman says. “In first grade, they’re up to ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’ It’s not for my daughter — she’s more of a visual kid. For me, this is about the kids in our school.”

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