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Former colleagues called Prophet the 'Dame' of Portland Public Schools, noting legacy and loyalty

In an impromptu move Tuesday evening, Sept. 20, the Portland Public Schools Board of Education renamed its central office headquarters after former superintendent Matthew Prophet.

COURTESY PHOTO: ROSANNE POWELL - Family, friends and former colleagues of Matthew Prophet gather with Portland School Board members for a photo after a vote to rename the district's headquarters after the former superintendent.The unanimous vote came unexpectedly Tuesday, following a presentation on the life and legacy of Prophet, who served as PPS superintendent from 1982 to 1992. Prophet died in June. He was 92.

His family, former colleagues and former PPS leaders praised Prophet for his robust accomplishments during his decade-long tenure.

"During his decade with Portland Public Schools, test scores across the district ascended, as did the public support, confidence and involvement in district initiatives and programs," Harriet Adair, former longtime PPS deputy superintendent said, reading from a letter to the school board.

Adair and Kevin Bacon, a former principal at PPS and current president of the Oregon Alliance of Black School Educators, presented the board with more than 200 signatures requesting the Blanchard Education Service Center be renamed after Prophet.

"Under Dr. Prophet's leadership, all Portland students made remarkable academic progress," Adair noted. "The percentage of African American high school graduates choosing to enter higher education, post-high school, rose from 49% in 1987 to 80% in 1991."

Adair said Portland's dropout rate was "among the lowest in the nation" for urban school districts.

"It is undisputed that Dr. Prophet's decade of leadership empowered constituencies inside and outside Portland Public Schools boundaries," Adair added.COURTESY PHOTO: WORLD ARTS FOUNDATION INC  - Matthew Prophet, who led Portland Public Schools as superintendent from 1982 to 1992, will be the new namesake of the district headquarters.

The district's central office is named after former superintendent Robert Blanchard, who served right before Prophet was hired to take his place.

Some, including Angela Bonilla, the current Portland teachers union president, said Blanchard's policies "put the burden of integration on the backs of our Black and African American students, busing them around the community and closing down schools."

Former PPS board member William Scott, who worked with Blanchard during his final year as superintendent and was on the board that hired Prophet from Lansing, Michigan, during the '80s, said Blanchard had notable contributions to PPS and his tenure "was marked by important and innovative commitment to standards-based evaluations."

"But by the time I joined the board," Scott said, "all those issues were eclipsed by the community's righteous demand for racial justice, moving away from dispersing Black children around the district and toward a focus on the quality of their education."

Prophet's legacy at PPS is marked by improved achievement, increased graduation rates and an education system that put Portland on the map for having one of the best-renowned urban public school systems in the country, Prophet's former colleagues said. They also noted his impeccable memory and passion for systemic change that would transform not just Portland's schools, but schools across the nation.

In a collection of video interviews included in a presentation about Prophet's legacy, former PPS Superintendent Carole Smith called Prophet "a highly influential mentor for many educators."

She said she once asked to shadow Prophet for a day when she was overseeing an alternative school in Portland, so she could learn from him. Prophet obliged. Years later, he was one of the first to call and congratulate her when she got the job as superintendent at PPS.

"He was arguably the best superintendent in the United States of America," Stephen Griffith, who served on the school board from 1987 to 1995, said of Prophet. "New York wanted him. Los Angeles wanted him. Chicago wanted him. Cleveland wanted him. Houston wanted him and he said 'No. I want to stay here in Portland.' He was the Damian Lillard of his time. He was loyal to this place and this place should be loyal to and honor him."

Energized by the outpouring of support, PPS school board members wasted no time in making the change Tuesday. The district's central office headquarters will now be called the Dr. Matthew Prophet Education Service Center.

With the vote, the board bypassed its own policy, which calls for community engagement and input, as well as a review of budget impacts, before renaming district buildings. After conferring with legal counsel, the board contended the process for renaming non-school buildings isn't as rigid and the change was almost certain to be approved, regardless of timeline.

A virtual public memorial for Prophet will be livestreamed from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, via the World Arts Foundation Inc.'s YouTube and Facebook pages.

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