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School deserves an explanation

North Clackamas School District's board meetings are typically sparsely attended and meticulously organized affairs. This is a board that allots specific times for each agenda item - down to the minute.

So when the board room fills and the president is pounding his gavel to squelch a heated exchange, it's a good indication that something is awry.

Many of those in attendance at the busy Feb. 27 board meeting were on hand to defend popular Milwaukie High School teacher Brian Duhrkoop. But after the volley of comments between parents, board members and Superintendent Ron Naso, it's clear that there is a problem at Milwaukie High School that runs deeper than a personnel squabble. In the space of one week a cauldron of emotion boiled over, and by the end, the superintendent said students at the high school were getting a sub-par education; students were expressing frustration; some teachers were afraid to speak their minds for fear of retribution; and others were already organizing for the next meeting this Thursday, March 20.

'Keep the Koop'

In the end, Duhrkoop, a former all-state athlete and valedictorian, and a current math teacher and coach, kept his job at Milwaukie. The district had been debating whether or not to renew the young teacher's contract.

This controversy started when word leaked that Duhrkoop might be dismissed. Students planned walk-outs, teachers sported 'Keep the Koop' buttons, and parents bombarded the board and local newspapers with letters. The general consensus among Duhrkoop's supporters was that he was being punished for speaking out about the sub-par conditions of Milwaukie's sporting facilities.

The administration, however, said the situation was about Duhrkoop's performance in the classroom.

Personnel matters are protected by Oregon public records laws, so it's hard to tell exactly what Duhrkoop did that warranted nixing his contract.

One thing we can say is Duhrkoop appears to be precisely the type of person the district's board members and administrators should be working to keep. Milwaukie has fallen on hard times in recent years for a number of reasons, many socio-economic. It's the only school in the district that earned a 'low' characteristic rating on the Oregon Department of Education's 2006-2007 District Report Card. It has lost students while the eastern half of the school district has exploded. The city itself is among the only towns in the Portland Metro area where population has remained relatively stagnant. It's safe to say that there are more desirable teaching jobs in the area.

So when a homegrown talent decides he wants to be a part of the solution, that's a positive. What Naso said at the meeting is true, Duhrkoop is not a 'messiah' or 'master teacher.' But he brings enthusiasm, youth and a passion for making the school better.

Of course, no teacher is above the rules of the district, and if Duhrkoop amassed a series of very serious infractions, we could understand his dismissal. It's not clear exactly what he did wrong, but from talking to a number of sources, it appears that any problems he may have in the classroom are not so serious that he's beyond improvement. For a school in need of positive change, the district should find a way to work with teachers like Duhrkoop, not work against them.

Deeper problems

The Duhrkoop fiasco fueled the current debate about Milwaukie High, but it's unearthed hard feelings and larger problems between administrators, teachers and parents at the school.

Naso suggested at the meeting that Milwaukie is 'struggling,' and attributed some of those struggles to a lack of cooperation from teachers, parents and students.

'We come to work with the same belief every day, and that is that every child in this community deserves a decent education,' he said. 'I can't say to you that kids across the board at Milwaukie High School are getting a great education, and that's worrisome.'

Some of Naso's comments ring true. It would be ideal to see greater synergy between parents, students and teachers in virtually any school. But many in Milwaukie, including veteran teachers, took the comments as an affront to their efforts, and they aren't alone. Some parents and students feel the same way, and it would be beneficial to everyone in the district if Naso clarified his comments at the next board meeting. A few trips through the halls of the high school probably wouldn't hurt either.

It's been rumored that Naso will consider retirement at some point in the near future. The superintendent has accomplished great things during his tenure, even securing the Oregon Superintendent of the Year award last year. The best way for him to secure his legacy at North Clackamas would be to help Milwaukie High School move forward in a unified direction that is best for students, teachers, parents and administrators alike.