A whiter shade of fail

Voters in Portland, Oregon approved a $35 per adult tax to raise $12 million for arts and music education. (Those under the poverty line are exempt.)

It’s not surprising Portland schools need more money. The district sent 93 teachers, principals and administrators to San Antonio for a five-day conference on “Courageous Conversations” about race, reports the Portland Tribune. More teachers were sent for five days of equity training in Oregon. All this is run by the Office of Equity, which has grown from one to seven employees in the past year.

At Harvey Scott K-8 school, 20 current and former teachers and staff members told the Tribune that Principal Verenice Gutierrez’s focus on race has created a “hostile environment” for students, staff and parents. Fearing a Courageous Conversations backlash, they all asked to be anonymous.

You may remember Gutierrez, who believes using a peanut butter sandwich as an example is culturally insensitive, but it’s OK to offer lunch time drumming classes only to black and Hispanic boys.

Scott’s “kids of whiteness” feel excluded,  one teacher said.

Adds another teacher: “Our whiteness is constantly thrown in our face. We’re taught we’re incapable of teaching students of color.”

Teachers have filed grievances with their union — or just quit. Twenty-six teachers — about half the staff — left after Gutierrez’ first year at Scott. Eight left the following year. The principal vowed to hire only bilingual teachers who are native speakers of Spanish. She wants to turn Scott into a bilingual immersion school.

Mediators have come to Scott multiple times to lead staff meetings, all paid for by the district. Among them is equity coach Kim Feicke, whose biography cites her expertise in working with “white educators to understand the impact of white culture on teaching, learning and school culture in order to effectively shift current practices.”

Enrollment is dropping, which Guitierrez blames on “white flight.”  Scott’s enrollment is 52 percent Latino, 20 percent white, 13 percent black (mostly Somali) and 8 percent Asian (mostly Vietnamese). The school scores in the bottom 15 percent statewide.

Scott needed to change, says Karl Logan, the regional administrator. “Whiteness” doesn’t refer to skin color, according to Logan, who calls himself a black man with “whiteness in me.” Whiteness is “about the predominant culture. If we’re not aware of how much we take that for granted, we will all of us miss the opportunity to improve student learning.”

In a memo to staff, Gutierrez described her shock at a student’s perception that she is a principal of whiteness.

“I asked him what color his skin is and he stated, ‘black.’ I then went into how society typecasts people of color and how expectations of us are lower simply because of the color of our skin. As I was speaking about our skin color he said, ‘But you are white.’ ” This statement stopped me dead and I can honestly say that it is the most devastating statement a child has ever made to me.”

Matt Shelby, district spokesman, says equity spending is needed to close the racial/ethnic achievement gap:  Two-thirds of Portland’s white students, but only about half of blacks and Hispanics, earn a high school diploma in four years.  “To just hire more teachers gets you more of the same,” Shelby told the Tribune. “Obviously when you look at our data the status quo isn’t working.”

So far, asking kids about their skin color isn’t working either, according to district data. Scott’s math and reading scores seem to be declining. The school made adequate yearly progress in seven of eight years before Gutierrez took over, but has failed AYP since.

The subtly racist peanut-butter sandwich

A peanut-butter sandwich could be racist, according to Verenice Gutierrez, reports the Portland (Oregon) Tribune.

Last year, a teacher used peanut-butter sandwiches as an example in a lesson.

“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” says Gutierrez, principal at Harvey Scott K-8 School, a diverse school of 500 students in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood.

“Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”

And maybe this is incredibly patronizing.

Guitierrez, along with all of Portland Public Schools’ principals, will start the new school year off this week by drilling in on the language of “Courageous Conversations,” the district-wide equity training being implemented in every building in phases during the past few years.

Through intensive staff trainings, frequent staff meetings, classroom observations and other initiatives, the premise is that if educators can understand their own “white privilege,” then they can change their teaching practices to boost minority students’ performance.

Scott teachers met in the first week of school to read a news story and discuss its inherent “white privilege.” A few teachers had the courage to object to the school’s lunch-time drum class, which is open only to Hispanic and black boys. About 65 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

At least one parent has a problem with the the class, saying it amounts to “blatant discrimination and equity of women, Asians, whites and Native Americans.”

“This ‘club’ was approved by the administration, and any girls who complained were brushed off and it was not addressed,” the parent wrote anonymously.

“When white people do it, it is not a problem, but if it’s for kids of color, then it’s a problem?” responds Gutierrez. “That’s your white privilege, and your whiteness.”

When white people create an explicitly whites-only school class or club . . . ? Does that happen in schools?