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Parents seethe as system stumbles

PPS feels the heat from social media, Ainsworth families


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Mary Krogh, former Portland Public Schools ombudsman, talked in 2011 with a district administrator about how to improve communication with parents.  A hailstorm of complaints is raining down on Portland Public Schools.

Beach School has been wracked by alienated parents. So has Metropolitan Learning Center, where, on the second day of school, unresolved concerns from last year led a group of parents to hang a banner on the staff parking lot fence. They say the banner — which read “MLC parents support MLC teachers — was a show of unity. Which is why they were shocked to find it removed the next morning, stuffed into a nearby Dumpster.

Things also are ugly at Ainsworth Elementary, a generally quiet, popular, high-performing school in Southwest Portland. Parents’ issues with the principal and one teacher there that started three years ago have escalated as they’ve wound their way through the district’s complaint process, finally reaching a stalemate now at the level of the school board and superintendent.

The parents say the system failed them.

PPS has parents work through their teacher and principal first, and then through the principal’s direct supervisor, the regional administrator. There are six RAs for the district’s 78 schools.

At Ainsworth, parents met with Regional Administrator Sascha Perrins but came away angrier.

“He insulted parents by doodling and writing his grocery list while parents described painful details of bullying by both a teacher and principal,” says Kim Sordyl, an Ainsworth parent who’s been a mouthpiece for fellow parents who fear retaliation. “He made it clear that he was in power and did not want to be bothered by these issues.”

All of this begs the question: Why so many complaints? Is there more discontent with school leadership lately than at any other point in time? Or does it just appear that way because parents feel they have no other recourse than to speak to the media?

Perrins, in his third year as a regional administrator, says anecdotally it seems like the number of complaints hasn’t changed dramatically but the intensity level has increased. He says the rise of social media — watchdog blogs and Facebook groups — has played a big part in fanning the flames and “creating a one-dimensional picture of what’s happening.”

As for Ainsworth, Perrins says his meetings with parents were “respectful,” and he didn’t ask many questions because he felt his primary job was to listen.

Formally, PPS doesn’t have a way of tracking parent complaints, since it cut its short-lived ombudsman position last year.

In place for the 2011-12 school year before falling victim to budget cuts, the PPS ombudsman was an effort to be a first point of contact for parents for concerns about everything from teachers and principals to special education, accessing programs, harassment and bullying.

The social worker who held that post, Mary Krogh, had started a parent complaint database so trends could be recognized and addressed, which fell to the wayside after she was laid off.

She had drafted a more user-friendly manual for the parent complaint process so avenues of recourse would be accessible rather than mystifying. That work also hasn’t moved forward.

In all, Krogh had taken about 200 complaints during the school year, resolving the bulk of them by opening the lines of communication, she says.

“I had a sense of when things needed to be escalated quickly,” says Krogh, who recently partnered with her North Portland neighbor and attorney, Kenya Budd, to start their own consulting firm, Collaborative Solutions, to teach parents how to problem-solve in schools.

Perrins, the regional administrator, is an advocate for problem-solving through having conversations, “to try and work on avoiding the polarizing behavior. ... Those kind of interactions almost always work,” he says.

Other districts have started realizing the benefits of an ombudsman as a vehicle for systemwide improvement.

Seattle Public Schools hired an ombudsman two years ago, who worked with school staff on telephone and email etiquette, problem-solving and de-escalating situations.

A school district ombudsman “can kind of neutralize a lot of issues that can otherwise get escalated beyond the school to the media, the administration, the school board,” says Seattle Schools ombudsman Ron McGlone, a trained mediator and district veteran of 23 years.

McGlone says his job is basic customer service, critical to maintaining public trust: “When you don’t take time to make that connection with your customer — your parents, students — you can’t go to them and ask for them to vote for your levy. It’s a partnership.”

Internal review

As recently as last month, PPS Superintendent Carole Smith recommended to the school board that they review, clarify and streamline the district’s student/parent complaint procedure policy.

On Aug. 7, Smith was delivering a recommendation that came from a recent investigation into several complaints at Ainsworth School.

The review had risen to “Level 3,” meaning it was a review of the internal review that had already taken place by Perrins, the regional administrator.

To conduct the investigation, PPS had hired Peter Hamilton, a PPS teacher, principal and administrator of 32 years who is a school leadership consultant. Since retiring from Lincoln High in 2006, he’s performed a variety of duties for PPS, both on a contract and as a temporary employee.

Despite the fact that his review at Ainsworth did find some policy violations of the original review, Ainsworth parent Sordyl questions how any PPS veteran can conduct an unbiased investigation. She also says Hamilton told parents in meetings that he had no experience in harassment investigations, which were the basis of the original complaints.

Around 20 parents had filed Level 2 complaints this past spring, at least five filed Level 3 complaints, and three filed complaints with the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. The complaints alleged harassment of students by a teacher, the principal’s failure to address them, and threats of retaliation from the principal against their children if the parents followed through with complaints.

Hamilton was, in fact, a former supervisor and colleague to Ainsworth Principal Cindy Roby, having served as principal at East-West Sylvan Middle School while she was a sixth-grade teacher there in the mid-1990s.

One former Ainsworth parent, who did not want to be identified, says the district’s complaint process amounts to “lip service.”

“The culture of PPS seems to be to sweep poor performance of principals and teachers under the rug because most parents have only one year of contact with most teachers, and parents write it off as ‘My kid is bound to have a bad teacher once in a while,’ ” the parent says.

At the Aug. 7 school board meeting, board member Steve Buel questioned this practice of hiring former PPS principals to investigate cases involving their former colleagues.

“Even if he’s George Washington and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one ... the appearance of bias is way too strong,” Buel told his fellow board members. “It just looks bad,” he said, casting the only no vote against accepting Hamilton’s report. “I don’t like looking bad as a district.”

Superintendent Smith said it’s standard practice, that Hamilton is one of a number of people who do investigation services when requested, and would do so again in the future.

She said one advantage of using someone retired from the system is so they’ll “understanding what they’re seeing.”

The other, Smith said, “is familiarity with what an investigation entails and professionalism around how you conduct one, which Peter is familiar with. So it’s very specific who we would go to ... once we have those people, we would continue to use them.”

The discussion lasted less than 10 minutes, as board co-chairman Matt Morton dismissed Buel’s concerns as “character assassination.”

Board member Tom Koehler asked if hiring district administrators is common practice at other districts. Smith said she didn’t know, but would look into it.

Outside investigators

The Tribune has looked into it, and found that it’s hardly the practice at other school districts. The Tribune made requests of 10 school districts in Oregon and Washington. Six out of 10 responded by this week, all of them saying they do not hire former administrators to conduct outside investigations of principals.

Those districts include Reynolds, Parkrose, Hillsboro, Salem-Keizer, Seattle Public Schools and Vancouver Public Schools.

For two recent cases in the Reynolds district that required such reviews, “we didn’t consider hiring anyone internal because of preconceived notions that there would be bias against the complainant or complainee,” says spokeswoman Andrea Watson.

Even for appearances alone, she adds, “They’ve ruled out anyone who’s been here before.”

Watson says it’s district practice to hire someone with experience in the area of the complaint, such as an attorney,

private investigator or forensic accountant.

Seattle uses the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission or outside attorney investigators. Hillsboro uses its human resources department and confers with legal counsel.

Parkrose has never had a serious complaint, but if it did, Superintendent Karen Gray says, a veteran at the district would not be hired. “It could not happen,” she says. “I think that it is not a good idea.”

Asking too much?

When it comes to principals landing in the crosshairs of school complaints, people sometimes forget to consider the context outside their neighborhood school.

So says Scott Nine, a PPS parent and executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Democratic Education in America, which aims to reinvent education through collaboration around social justice issues.

He says the new era of public education forces principals to navigate economic, environmental and technological challenges, along with the impact of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Oregon’s achievement compacts.

Add to that the high public expectations for savviness in political, social, communications, finance, strategy, management and educational leadership skills, and most principals lack about two thirds of the content and skills they need to employ, he says.

“The community has some responsibility for the conditions going on,” Nine says. “From

afar it’s easy to spot some patterns and tensions. They’re not all about the principals and the district. It’s about how we handle conflict.”