New principal charts turnaround at Jefferson
- Todd Murphy
- Portland Tribune - News
First goal is to stanch hemorrhaging of students and teachers
He has roamed these wide halls before.
But twice, Larry Dashiell was forced to leave Jefferson High School as he experienced firsthand the sort of reorganization and upheaval that have afflicted the school for most of its recent history.
This time, Dashiell says, he's here for a longer stay. And people who care about North Portland's Jefferson High Ñ maybe one of the most misunderstood and unquestionably one of the most troubled public schools in Oregon Ñ certainly hope so.
The 47-year-old Dashiell starts school Wednesday as the seventh Jefferson High principal in six years. His long-term mission: Turn around a school mired in low student test scores, high student-dropout rates and an academic reputation that increasingly chases North Portland students away to other Portland high schools.
His short-term mission: Stop the bleeding.
The repeated changes in leadership and direction at Jefferson in recent years have pummeled the school's reputation, its students and its staff.
Jefferson's enrollment of 855 last year was by far the lowest of any Portland high school and had declined 20 percent from six years before.
This fall, 920 students are expected. Another 256 students from Jefferson's neighborhood got district approval to transfer to other high schools; 66 of them got those transfers through a new federal law calling for school districts to provide free transportation for students to leave low-achieving schools.
In the meantime, Dashiell had to hire 18 teachers this past summer to fill out a teaching staff of 70. The 18 are replacements for Jefferson teachers who left after last year, some in frustration with the continuous administrative changes at the school.
'I think people were burned out from it,' Jefferson teacher Carrie Rohn says of the repeated leadership changes. 'They were just exhausted, starting over again every single year.'
So all the affable Dashiell has to do is turn around a school with a heavy load of first-time Jefferson teachers and with the rest of the staff dizzy from constant change.
'It's a challenge,' he says almost matter-of-factly as he sits at the desk in his office. 'But that's OK.'
The first issue Dashiell has tried to address is the revolving door into the principal's office. He has publicly committed to spending at least five years as Jefferson principal.
The repeated principal changes 'gives the perception that it's really, really tough to even walk in the door,' Dashiell says. 'And that's just not the case.
'I'd like to give it five, at least,' he says. 'That sounds like a good number.'
Of course, past Jefferson principals also came to the job believing they would stay longer than they did, Jefferson supporters and teachers say. Kevin Bacon, for one, resigned in early 2001 after serving as interim principal and principal for about a year. In a letter to then-Superintendent Ben Canada written before Bacon resigned, Bacon bitterly cited 'broken promises and lack of support' for the school from district leaders.
'I think the principals we've had have cared deeply,' says Barbara Lescher, a mother of a Jefferson student and head of the school's parent-teacher association. 'I think the struggles they've had have come from those over them, and not anyone under them.'
Whatever struggles lie ahead, Dashiell will negotiate them with plenty of experience within Portland Public Schools, although none as a permanent principal.
In more than two decades in Portland, Dashiell has been a middle school assistant principal, vice principal at Lincoln and Madison high schools, and twice vice principal at Jefferson. (He was vice principal in 1995, before district layoffs required each high school to lose an administrator, then became vice principal again in the fall of 1997 Ñ before the district 'reconstituted' Jefferson at the end of that school year.) He also served as acting principal for four months at Northeast Community School and was assistant principal for the previous three years at Southridge High School in Beaverton when he was named Jefferson principal.
Concerns about experience
Dashiell's lack of experience as a principal concerns some Jefferson advocates.
Tony Hopson is a 1972 Jefferson graduate; head of Self-Enhancement Inc., a nonprofit organization working with North Portland youth; and a vocal critic of the low student achievement at Jefferson.
'There's not a place in his record that would show an ability to take kids who are underachieving and have them achieve,' Hopson says.
Hopson was part of a district-appointed citizens committee formed in the spring of 2001 to review applicants to replace Bacon. The committee wasn't satisfied with any finalist, however, and decided against recommending any of them for the job. After former Gresham-Barlow Superintendent James Carlile served as interim principal last year, a different citizens committee reviewed another slate of applicants last spring and chose Dashiell. Hopson was not on that second committee.
'There were people in the first round that we had who had more experience than (Dashiell) did,' Hopson says.
But Hopson says of Dashiell: 'At least he's committed to trying to turn it around. É He's the principal. We will do all we can to support him.'
Dashiell says he's not certain Jefferson ever would have been able to lure a principal with experience turning around a similarly troubled school.
'There aren't too many people with a history of turning around multiple high schools,' he says. 'It takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of time. É It's a tremendous challenge, and you're giving a lot. And they usually move on to be a superintendent or somewhere in the district office.'
His experience as an administrator in a range of schools is good preparation for the Jefferson job, Dashiell says. And sometimes, school districts need to be like major league ball clubs: develop their stars from their Triple AAA clubs, Dashiell says. 'Sometimes, you have to grow your own,' he says.
Schedule changes may help
Dashiell says he understands the challenges at Jefferson.
The staff needs to focus on helping students raise their test scores, he says. He hopes changes in class schedules this year, proposed by a committee last year, will help. Two days each week, the school will have the 90-minute teaching blocks that it had every day last year. The other three days, students will attend 55-minute classes. Dashiell and teachers hope the change will help all students but also will ensure that freshman have more English and mathematics before they take the state assessments as sophomores.
Jefferson also plans to begin 25-minute 'advisory' periods for students at least once a week, which will allow staff members to talk with students about a number of issues and may help more students connect to an adult at the school, Dashiell says. 'That's what it's all about: connections,' he says.
Current and former Jefferson teachers say the school is better than its reputation. Because of its relatively low enrollment, teachers can offer more individualized teaching. Students, most of them well-behaved and disciplined, are learning, they say.
'The minute I walked into that school, I fell in love with the place,' says Jeanette Fruen, who has done volunteer work at the school for 11 years.
Still, less than a third of the Portland district's high school students who live within Jefferson's boundaries actually go to Jefferson. No other neighborhood has less than 50 percent of its students going to the neighborhood high school.
'I think it's up to the district, it's up to the school, to make sure parents feel comfortable about their children coming here,' Dashiell says. 'And (comfortable) that they can get a good solid, strong education here at Jefferson.'
People who know Dashiell say he can help make that happen.
Mary Weaver, a longtime counselor at the school who retired last year, returned the retirement watch and pin that district leaders gave her to protest how she thinks they had neglected Jefferson in recent years.
But she likes Dashiell. 'People have a lot of confidence in Larry,' she says. 'They like Larry a lot, and they know he has a heart for the school. And still, after all these years, they want to see the school succeed.'
Dashiell smiles as he recounts people warning him of the job ahead.
'We won't know until the five years is up,' he says. 'We won't know if it's, 'Man, you didn't want to get into this,' Or, 'You know what? I did Ñ we did Ñ just fine.' '
He's ready for the challenge, he says:
'It feels like I am where I should be.'