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.

How to raise graduation rates

What can we do to stem the tide of dropouts and help more students earn a high school diploma? The Hechinger Report and the Washington Monthly look at three cities that have tried to improve low graduation rates.

All three cities have taken remarkably similar approaches to the problem. Those approaches fall into two general categories: fixing existing low-performing high schools, often by breaking them into smaller schools; and creating alternative schools and programs—“multiple pathways,” in the jargon of the trade—that cater to the diverse needs of those kids who are on the verge of dropping out or already have done so.

New York City, which has created many small schools, has made significant progress.

Philadelphia is also improving, though not as dramatically.

Portland, Oregon, with more white and middle-class students, has made no progress at all. The city sends 20 percent of students to alternative schools with lots of support and very low expectations. Very few earn a diploma.

Also in the package: Small schools are beautiful — if they have real autonomy, good teaching and high standards, writes Thomas Toch. He also has a piece on the challenge of lowering the drop-out rate while raising academic standards.

Only between 70 and 75 percent of students who enter high school graduate, and, of those who do, less than half of them are college ready. Forty percent of community college freshman and 20 percent of students entering four-year colleges have to take remedial classes.

Twenty-four states now require graduation exams which typically test eighth-grade math concepts and tenth-grade language arts skills. Nineteen of the states grant waivers to students who cannot pass the test.

Next year, the U.S. Education Department will require states to use a uniform method of calculating dropout rates: the numbers are expected to go way up. That will give states and districts even more incentive to lower graduation requirements, Toch writes.

Schools can identify high-risk students.

If they get to struggling students early, schools can assign them tutors and mentors and closely monitor their attendances and grades. Researchers also point to another key to staving off higher dropout rates: creating a culture of high expectations in lagging high schools. When teachers and students believe in the importance of high standards and share a commitment to reaching them, much can be accomplished.

But it’s not easy to pull off, especially in large, impersonal high schools.


Ninth grade: Make or break

Ninth grade is the make or break year for students, reports the Portland Oregonian. Of those who earn 5.5 credits of a possible six, 78 percent will go on to earn a diploma. Only 20 percent of students who finish ninth grade with 5 or fewer credits will graduate.

Portland schools are offering “smaller classes, reinforcement in reading and math and personal follow-ups with students who miss class the most” in hopes of keeping low-performing ninth graders on track.

Samantha Steadman goes to Tigard High, which enrolled her in summer school before ninth grade.


. . . she has David Tolbert, a teacher who sees her for a support class every other day.  . . . He knows Sam’s story, including her history of getting in fights and trying drugs, her struggles with spelling and reading.

Tolbert preaches a constant drumbeat of what Sam needs to do and offers her advice and help to complete assignments, turn in homework and work out conflicts with teachers.

Finally, Sam has linguistics class with Marc Jolley.

. . . Jolley’s class targets a hard-core group: Students who’ve reached high school after years of frustration and failure because they read and write at only about a fifth-grade level.

Sam and 18 other students spend 90 minutes with Jolley every day — twice as much as other students spend in freshman English classes.

. . . The material is unrelenting. But these students are on it. Jolley says that’s because they quickly figure out that nose-to-the-grindstone learning in this class pays off.

It’s helping, claims a BridgeSpan report.  Here’s the podcast.

Is ninth grade too late? Failure starts in fourth grade, says an educator of dropouts in this AP story.

Sexual abuser wants to teach again

Kimberly Horenstein taught deaf children for 21 years in Portland, Oregon, before she was exposed for sexually abusing two girls, 11 and 13, on a swim team she’d coached at the start of her career. She wasn’t prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run out, but she lost her teaching license. Now she wants to teach again — and she may get the chance, reports the Oregonian.

Horenstein, now 50, admitted the sexual abuse in 2005. One of her victims came forward after seeing a newspaper column about Horenstein and her partner’s adoption of two boys.

In petitioning for her license back, Horenstein refers to the abuse, which spanned years of sex with two children, as “the incident.”

“I acknowledge the fact that much earlier in my life I made some poor choices,” Horenstein wrote the state board. “I have consistently maintained good boundaries with my students.”

“The incident” doesn’t seem like an adequate explanation for using her position of authority to exploit two little girls over a three-year period.  One of the victims, the mother of two children attending Portland schools, thinks Horenstein is not worthy of trust.