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Guerrero lays out vision for Portland schools future: Interesting classes, nicer buildings and more diverse staff
This story has been updated.
Two days after a school shooting shattered the peace of Parkland, Florida, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero's comments to the Portland City Club's Friday Forum had overarching themes of striving for safety and success in uncertain times.
"When are we going to get serious about mental and behavioral health?" Guerrero asked the ballroom of the Sentinel Hotel, packed with school officials, students and City Club members. "Perhaps we should talk about an act on common sense gun control?"
Guerrero paused for loud applause after that remark and continued: "Are we doing everything we can to ensure our students are safe?"
JT Flowers, a Lincoln High School graduate, Rhodes Scholar and aide to Congressman Earl Blumenaur, served as moderator during the last half of the hour-long talk. Flowers noted how often Guerrero spoke in the form of a question and politely pressed for details as the subjects ranged from racial equity, to insufficient facilities, to the challenges of digging the state's largest school district out of so many problems.
On graduation rates, Guerrero said it was imperative to get the nearly one-quarter of PPS students who do not graduate on time interested in school.
"It's not enough to make a call or knock on the door and say: 'Come back to what you didn't like,' " he said.
In response to a student question, Guerrero voiced a surprisingly strong desire to financially support student activities and clubs.
"We should take care of that first," he said, in spite of limited school funds. "That's definitely something you can look forward to us supporting."
He spoke of the need for "hooks" of student engagement, be they art, music, sports or clubs.
"We know that a relationship with at least one adult, it makes all the difference," he said.
Guerrero relished the opportunities presented by two large school construction bonds passed by Portland voters in recent years but noted that deferred maintenance and insufficient buildings go beyond the pretty new high schools.
"It's not OK for a first grader to be in an elementary school where the roof is leaking, where the tiles are falling off, where you can't trust the water that you're drinking," Guerrero said. "So we're working aggressively to remediate and fix for all of those things."
From a community wrestling with racial tensions, diversity was a repeated topic for one of the only superintendents of color in the state. He offered a few specifics on how to improve Portland Public Schools' stubbornly unchanged rate of employees of color. For example, he wants a paraeducator-to-teacher pipeline and an Urban Teacher Residency program, a practical training program similar to a doctor's residency.
Guerrero also used the opportunity to explain more of his background than would ever be on a resume.
Guerrero described a "gritty" childhood in the Central Valley area of California that included domestic violence, alcoholism and, eventually, the single parenthood of a loving yet strict mother. "She cracked many a wooden spoon over me," he said. The oldest of four, he said he still speaks to his mother daily, in Spanish.
Guerrero said his passion for the violin, introduced to him by an "itinerant music teacher," led to many of the opportunities in his life: a classroom assistant turned music teacher who eventually earned two degrees from Harvard University.
He says he came to Portland because he saw the "opportunity to make an exponential difference."
Guerrero referenced visits with many programs and city leaders in his first four months, including conversations with Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, also a recent transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area tasked with reforming a long-maligned agency.
"The challenges are similar but different," Guerrero said. "We're trying to engage our organizations in a transformation that better serves our clients."
He acknowledged it had been a long and difficult four months, including a vague reference to a "mutiny" in the central administration, but suggested he is recruiting staff all over the nation with a narrative of transformation.
"People like to be part of a winning team," Guerrero said. "That'll trickle all the way down the organization.. …It is exciting to identify those individuals who will get us to the playoffs."
Guerrero said he felt a sense of urgency to tackle problems such as the recruitment of teachers of color. (PPS' workforce has remained about 75 percent white for years, despite massive expenditures on diversity programs.) But he repeatedly returned to the notion of relationship-building.
"Without relational trust, you really can't expect transformation to take place," he said.
Guerrero called for more ethnic studies programs throughout the public school years. He also gave a tepid response to a question about charter schools, calling them "boutique" education.
"What I encourage us to do is take a close look at what is working (in charter schools)," Guerrero said. "My interest is: how do we do that for 50,000 students?"
The former San Francisco United School District superintendent got applause for his affirmation of the need for high-quality preschool programs, arguing that indicators for at-risk youth start very young.
Finally, he responded to a question familiar to many student election campaigns: the poor quality of school cafeteria food.
As with the answers to many other questions during the hour, he responded with a need to engage students and community in identifying solutions. In this case, for ways to offer more local food and tastier options.
"Those meals are very important to our students and we really need to give some careful thought to providing them," Guerrero said.
Watch the full presentation:
UPDATE (Feb. 19, 2018): Corrected the name of the Florida city where the Feb. 14, 2018 school shooting occurred.
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