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Outgoing principal questions huge equity training focus

Vivian Orlen has been dealing with race, among other issues, as principal of Grant High School for the past three years.

Fifteen percent of Grant’s students are black, which is the largest black population for any of the district’s seven comprehensive high schools.

During her tenure at Grant, Orlen (who is white) has instituted changes — like doing away with popular AP classes in order to offer other programs — that have rankled the school’s white middle-class parents.

And they let her know it. She received so many emails that accused her of “ruining the school,” “violating very important traditions,” and “taking the place down,” that she’s saved them in a folder and is filing them away with the purpose of writing a book, she told the Tribune in an interview a few days before she left for New York.

It would be titled something like “Emails to a principal; reflections on a community,” Orlen said.

It would include the surprising twist: by the end of the first year, Orlen says she received a rush of emails from many of the same parents and students that thanked her for making the hard decisions. “A parent thanked me for giving voice to her ‘average’ child,” she says.

Yet what remains an enigma to her is the city’s attitudes and actions around race.

“I will never fully appreciate and understand the history in this city around race,” Orlen, 50, told the Tribune in an interview at her office last Wednesday. “I do think I’m at a disadvantage sometimes. At the same time my own experiences around Courageous Conversations is that things just feel so conversational. I’m action-oriented. For me to do the work it has to be action.”

As a principal, she says, she hasn’t felt the equity trainings she experienced have allowed her to “turn key” her experience in her building.

“For me, there’s no connection between the investment PPS has brought in with this training and the work I’ve done here,” she says.

District leaders say a systematic transformation around equity doesn’t happen overnight; they’ve been laying the groundwork for change.

Orlen thinks it’s also strange that if equity is the district’s top priority, why they’ve left it completely to the principals to deliver it on their own. In fact the uneven delivery has been the source of angst in many buildings, as teachers say their principals have been a bit overzealous.

In the end, Orlen says, she’d rather see PPS invest in the tools teachers need to succeed — whether it be funding books or pens or time to plan — than in the warm and fuzzy Courageous Conversations framework.

“I remain concerned about Courageous Conversations being a strategy. I don’t think that’s going to be the lever that makes the difference,” she says.

So what is the lever, in her mind? “Strong, bold leadership,” Orlen says. “Be decisive. Give teachers the tools they need to work in the 21st century. ... I think the difference needs to be in the classrooms, not disconnected in this thing we call Courageous Conversations.”

Things are different in N.Y.

Orlen says she wanted to stay a fourth year at Grant, so she could see next year’s senior class (freshmen when she started) through their graduation.

But an opportunity came that was too good to pass up, she says. She was offered a job with the New York Department of Public Education as an achievement coach, working with first- and second-year principals to help them improve.

Her first year on the job here, she recalls, she had a coach whom she didn’t see as beneficial.

In New York, things are different, she says: There’s a framework to follow, with expectations, and at the end of the year the teachers will assess her performance and decide whether to re-up.

She’ll return to her husband, Alan Dichter, who worked in PPS administration before being laid off last summer, and her younger son, who attends Metropolitan Learning Center and would’ve been starting his freshman year at Grant.

Her older son is a sophomore at a Russian ballet academy in Washington, D.C., and Orlen says she wants to be near him.

She delayed announcing her departure from Grant High School until the end of school because she didn’t want to be a lame duck, she says.

Having been a teacher and administrator for an equal amount of time (13 years), Orlen says she does want to be a principal again, but not right away.

PPS began the process of finding a new principal at Grant with a community “listening session” last Wednesday evening. About 70 community members showed up to weigh in on what district leaders should look for in a new leader.

It’s these types of public process Orlen isn’t sure what to make of, even after three years in Portland.

“It is overprocess here,” she says. “I don’t think we have the time for it. Kids are in school for a finite period of time.”

Orlen thinks her successor should be a seasoned high school principal already familiar with PPS but who’ll look at Grant with a fresh pair of eyes. “They need to be able to navigate the glaciers and own their decisions,” she says, “knowing they’re not going to make everybody happy.”

— Jennifer Anderson