Community calls for PPS audit amid teacher investigation
Fifteen. That's the number of substitute teachers Harriet Tubman Middle School students say they've had in recent weeks, out of a staff of 34.
Fourty-two. That's the number of days that had passed since Portland Public Schools issued a letter notifying Tubman Middle School teacher Bryan Chu of the circumstances that led the district to place him on administrative leave.
Those circumstances led Tubman students to organize a school walkout Friday, May 13, marching from their campus to the PPS district office to demand answers about Chu's absence.
It's the latest in a series of recent protests by students there.
Chu, a social studies teacher, was placed on leave last month as the district launched an internal investigation into Chu's behavior following comments he allegedly made during school board meetings. As first reported by OPB, PPS cited Chu's behavior at a Feb. 22 meeting, in which several educators shouted down school board members. The following month, Chu chastised a PPS employee over a perceived lack of community outreach regarding the pending relocation of Harriet Tubman Middle School.
"Students are not happy about not being engaged in this process," Chu told a PPS facilities and operations committee, noting several letters sent from students. Chu argued with staff during that committee meeting, at one point telling a staffer, "You failed at your job." The school district also took issue with Chu encouraging students to write letters to PPS, critiquing the handling and announcements about the school's planned relocation.
In a message sent to district administrative staff and shared with Pamplin Media Group, a colleague said Chu's positions on social justice are relatable but also described an adversarial attitude that goes beyond public meetings.
"He constantly undermines any rules we start with at the beginning of the year, lets kids be on their phones, do whatever they want, skip other classes in his room, etc," the message said.
By late April, PPS wouldn't confirm Chu's employment or investigation status, but hinted at his behavior during meetings as a catalyst for a personnel investigation.
"As is consistent with our practices and commitments, we treat personnel matters with confidentiality," Ryan Vandehey, a PPS media relations rep, said April 29 on behalf of the district. "We welcome engagement with our employees, families and community members, including a variety of perspectives and opinions. We also take the conduct of our professionals very seriously, and we expect a certain level of decorum in classrooms and in public."
Chu has not returned to work. He doesn't expect to. The teacher called the investigative process flawed from the beginning, evidenced by the leak of a complaint and radio silence from the district about the investigation's progress.
"I've been teaching for 24 years and in Portland Public Schools, I've been teaching for 14 years," Chu said. "My job is to teach. I do my job and I do my job well. Anything outside of that, that becomes another issue. There's nothing I'm doing in my job that is unprofessional."
"Bring back Chu!" students chanted, as they marched with signs to the district offices in the Rose Quarter. "We want Chu. We want change. We want answers!"
Just two hours prior to the planned march, PPS administrators announced they were closing the district office for the day, citing a staff shortage. Students and supporters arrived to locked doors.
"Mr. Chu was one of the only teachers who taught us about what is going on," said eighth-grader Stella Powell. "He encouraged us to sign letters to the board."
"Pretending we don't exist doesn't make us go away," Zoe Spitzer, an eighth-grader at Tubman, said Friday. "Our grades are plummeting. We don't feel prepared for high school and we're not properly learning math."
In addition to the walkouts, the district has received letters demanding Chu's reinstatement, as well as additional support staff and a "proactive plan for next school year" to address what Tubman parents and teachers say is an "educational crisis" at the middle school.
Prominent activists, lawmakers and student leaders have also taken notice.
On May 17, 10 different community leaders including student representatives, county youth commissioners, leaders from organizations including the Portland NAACP and Equitable Giving Circle and state Rep. Akasha Lawrence-Spence sent a letter to PPS calling for an audit of its employment practices.
The group suggests educators of color in PPS face a higher degree of scrutiny from management.
"When having a conversation with our BIPOC educators and community members, many have said they have been under an increased and different amount of scrutiny or investigation compared to white educators alone," the letter states. "We join parents, students, and community members in calling for an audit of HR practices in PPS because of this. We want reporting as it relates to the retention, performance management and employee engagement of PPS educators / staff. As well, data should be separated by race and gender to ensure we are examining any racial disparities or disproportionate treatment."
That sentiment is also felt by Latoya Lovely, a former PPS educator.
"I've seen the racial discrimination from PPS," Lovely said. "I resigned because nothing was done about it. I reached out to get restorative justice and was ignored."
Three days before the May 13 walkout, students addressed the school board, saying they've endured more than two dozen substitute teachers in recent weeks, resulting in lost learning. They accused the school district of prioritizing "petty workplace politics" over the needs of students during a year when PPS already faces a teacher shortage. Students also said Chu is a valued teacher who connected with and inspired students.
"To take away Mr. Chu is to take away opportunities from students," Lauren Lockman, a Tubman student, told the board on May 10. "Mr. Chu is more than just a teacher. He's like family to us. …When we go into his classroom, we know we'll feel safe, respected and heard."
Students say Chu's absence, combined with a perpetual rotation of substitute teachers, has left them feeling ignored by PPS.
Chu said this isn't the first time he's been investigated by the district for speaking his truth during staff or community meetings. "There's a disconnect between the decisions made by the board and what's happening in schools, so were frustrated," he said. Addressing the complaints made about his teaching style and claims of misogyny, Chu said he tries not to pour all his energy into policing students' behavior or getting into "a power struggle with a student over a phone."
"At the end of the day, you've gotta figure out what you're trying to accomplish," Chu said. "I'm there to teach, not to police kids all day. I think teachers are, a lot of them are very linear. They're rule followers."
Chu said he's being retaliated against for trying to interrupt racism and address shortcomings.
"PPS is centered on whiteness. You say you have restorative justice and you want to move from a punitive system to a restorative system, but you don't actually apply that," Chu said, referring to district administrators. "I think most of these issues we have, could be solved with a conversation."
Issues at Northeast school predated teacher leave
Harriet Tubman MS students and families have been vocal in their dissatisfaction with state and local leadership.
In 2018, studies showed the air quality near the school was unsafe for students due to pollution from the nearby I-5 freeway. The campus is in Portland's Albina District, historically comprised of Black neighborhoods displaced by urban planning, including the construction of I-5. Today, nearly 60% of students at the middle school are students of color and 32% are Black, state enrollment data shows.
When the pollution issues surfaced, students were advised not to play outdoors. PPS installed a new air filtration system at the school to fix indoor air quality, but recent plans to expand the I-5 freeway in the Rose Quarter led to outcry from climate activists, the Tubman Middle School community, and school board members. State legislators agreed. Earlier this year, Gov. Kate Brown announced $120 million would be earmarked for PPS to help relocate the middle school.
While PPS Board Chair Michelle DePass has agreed the school should be moved to avoid further pollution impacts to students and staff, others have lambasted the state and school district, including Chu and some of his students.
This story has been updated with input from Bryan Chu.
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