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Advocate lends ear to solve problems

New PPS post tries to deal with issues before they become trouble
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Mary Krogh draws on her social worker skills and mom instincts when talking with parents about problems in their kids' schools. Most often, it's a communication breakdown, she says.

This time of year, Mary Krogh is usually buried in requests from Portland’s neediest families for turkey baskets and utility assistance. Year-round, she’s helped mothers fleeing domestic violence, children facing homelessness or families living on the brink of eviction. “I loved it, but it was stressful,” says Krogh, a Multnomah County school-based social worker who has spent the past nine years working throughout Portland Public Schools. This past summer, after the district closed the Northside Family Support Center on North Commercial Avenue, district leaders transferred Krogh’s position as the center’s manager into a new, more broadly impactful one: district ombudsman. Krogh — a North Portland resident and PPS mother of three — thought long and hard about her new role and her approach to it. She automatically drew on her professional background, and her deep-seated desire to help the disadvantaged access the same playing field as the rest of the community. “We’ve got tons and tons of data about how PPS doesn’t serve some groups well. I want to make sure our district works well for those families,” she says. One common scenario: a parent calls to complain about her child’s teacher. Krogh asks if she’s spoken with the teacher — sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no. “I always think about being a parent,” she says. “I tell them they are their kid’s best advocate. Yes, it’s intimidating to talk to a teacher, but let’s talk about ways to do that.” If the issue with the teacher can’t be resolved by talking it out, Krogh can get a principal on the line to deal with the problem. “Some are pretty guarded; some vent — that’s fine,” she says. “I problem-solve with them.” Krogh reports back to the parent, and many times the matter is resolved — a simple communication breakdown. Other times she’s arranged for the principal, the parent and in some cases the principal’s boss — the regional administrator — to meet in person and talk the issue out. Krogh prefers to step out at that point. “I really want to solve it at the lowest level,” she says. “For me to be in the middle isn’t always best.” Improving policies A Reno native, Krogh came to Portland nine years ago with her husband to raise her children, now 11 and twins who are 7. They attend their neighborhood schools in North Portland. While she draws on her mom skills, Krogh doesn’t pretend to know exactly what the parents who call her are facing. “A lot of experiences my kids have had being middle-class white kids don’t necessarily pertain to that of a low-income, single black mom, and the subtle racism she feels every time she walks into a building,” Krogh says, tears welling up. Since starting her position in August, the issue of race has in fact come up frequently, Krogh says. “A number of parents say their experience at their school is a result of their race.” She listens and then tells them about the district’s engagement in a years-long equity training program called Courageous Conversations about Race, designed to make administrators, principals, teachers and staff more culturally responsive in their classrooms and policies. Krogh’s conversations and the data she keeps could guide the district to further improve its policies, based on the trends that crop up. She’s awaiting new software that will allow her to track her progress with each caller, including the outcome, since she always follows up. For now she keeps notes on all of her calls the old-fashioned way: writing on a steno notepad. Not ‘ombudswoman’ Because the ombudsman position is new, Krogh’s phone hasn’t quite been ringing off the hook. All that could change as people become aware of the resource. In her downtime she’s been able to draft a formal “administrative directive” for a parent complaint process for PPS — the official manual dictating the process step-by-step. Currently, no such directive exists, she says — just a broad school board resolution on the student/parent complaint procedure. Krogh is translating that policy into an administrative directive, making a point to keep it user-friendly rather than hard-to-read legalese. Her draft of a family complaint process outlines a step-by-step guide to the four levels of the process. The first is trying to resolve the problem at the school/department level; if not, a formal (written) complaint can be filed. Level three is requesting a review by the superintendent’s office, and the last level — reserved for a limited number of cases — is a review by the school board or an appeal to the state superintendent of education, if there’s reason to believe state standards may have been violated. Krogh is vetting the draft with community and parent groups; Smith is expected to review and adopt it afterward. Then, in mid-January, Krogh is hoping to debut the parent complaint website she’s building, which will include the new guidelines and enable parents to send emails with their concerns directly to her. Will all of the attention and access result in more complaints against teachers? Krogh says it’s just about problem resolution. “I’m not out to get teachers by any means,” she says. “I love, love, love teachers.” Oh, and don’t bother advising Krogh to call herself an “ombudswoman” — she struggled with that as well, even printing “ombudsperson” on her business card until she found the common definition. “ ‘Ombudsman’ is a Swedish word meaning a public official appointed to receive complaints about government,” according to a definition from the state of Washington’s Department of Education. “The title ‘Ombudsman’ is gender-neutral, used by both men and women. Characteristics of ombudsman offices are: independence, impartiality, confidentiality and advocacy for fair processes.” Contact Mary Krogh, PPS ombudsman, at 503-916-5876, or by email, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.