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Schools lose faithful supporter

Foundation Executive Director Cynthia Guyer advocates for boldness as she leaves her post
by: , GUYER

Over the past 10 years, the community has known Cynthia Guyer as the thoughtful, collaborative, strategic visionary behind the Portland Schools Foundation, the civic body that helped lead the five successful funding campaigns for Portland Public Schools since 1996.

Now, as she steps down as the organization's executive director and the local and state education funding levels look stable, Guyer thinks it's the dawn of a new era in Portland - one that can start focusing less on the next school funding crisis and more on issues like reforming the district's high schools.

'Portland thinks of itself as a creative, cutting-edge city,' says Guyer, who officially retired from her post last week after announcing four months ago that she wanted to move on to pursue other opportunities.

'But in terms of this issue, we're not seeing enough of it. The question for Portland is, Do we have enough civic will and resolve? Why can't we create world-class high schools?'

The Portland school board last week formally began taking stock of its high schools, discussing the organization and role of the district's new Office of High Schools. Board members examined data on test scores and graduation rates and began a conversation about what policies should be implemented in the schools.

Yet Guyer's thoughts on high school reform take place outside of public school buildings. She notes that other larger and urban cities such as Los Angeles, New York City and Boston have been taking more innovative approaches to their high schools in recent years.

They have created an array of charter schools, other semiautonomous schools and alternative magnet schools that have outperformed the public schools, she said.

Portland has seen a few such ventures spring up, but in general, 'Portland doesn't have enough world-class high schools to choose from,' she said. 'I think we have a supply-side issue.'

Many public school parents oppose charter schools because they say they steal students away from the district's neighborhood schools, but proponents argue just the opposite: that they help retain students who would otherwise leave the district.

Whatever the case, Guyer thinks it's the foundation's role to provide information and spur the debate.

Ideas challenge status quo

Guyer is leaving a couple of other bold ideas on the table as she steps down, both of which have stirred controversy in Portland in the past.

One is to provide incentives for teachers to work in lower-performing schools, a practice that other districts have adopted with support from the National Education Association, she said.

In Portland, the teachers union has argued that incentive pay actually could be more harmful than beneficial to teachers, but incentives in the way of more resources and time and help in planning potentially could work.

The other charge is to study the adoption of school-based budgeting, a kind of budgeting model that allows spending, staffing and hiring decisions to be made by school principals rather than central administrators, as they are made now.

Any shift in that direction appears unlikely, however, since Superintendent Vicki Phillips has pushed for a core curriculum that centralizes decision-making authority rather than decentralizes it.

Liz Kaufman, a local campaign guru who has worked with the foundation on funding measures, says the foundation should pursue ideas it believes to be good practice. Guyer always has been 'fearless,' she said, and she leaves big shoes to fill.

The national search for Guyer's replacement is in its final stages, and the foundation's board will begin interviewing candidates later this month. The new leader is expected to be named this spring.

In the meantime, Guyer heads down to the Stanford Graduate School of Business today for a two-week fellowship for social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders. When she returns to her Northeast Portland home, where her son is a freshman at Grant High School, she says she has no major plans except to do national consulting on urban education issues for a while.

Group's nationally known

The group's new executive director will oversee an organization with a budget of $11 million, about half of which is spent on program initiatives such as Connected by 25, which aims to engage young people in education, work training or employment by age 25.

The foundation gives about 18 percent of its funds directly to schools through a distribution formula intended to provide equity across the district.

Arleta Elementary in Southeast used foundation money to boost reading and writing instruction, including parent classes on how to best teach kids how to read, said principal Lynn Schom-Ferguson.

Another grant paid for leadership classes for parents, after the PTA had collapsed. Parents then formed the Arleta Boosters, which exists today as part of the school's improvement plan.

At Beaumont Middle School in Northeast, Sherie Knutsen used the funds for student mentors, staff development, cultural competency, leadership training and collaborative planning that all have resulted in a major narrowing of the achievement gap and increased test scores among all students.

Some have been critical of the foundation's grant distribution process, saying that poorer schools with fewer resources often don't have the time or know-how to apply for the competitive grants.

Guyer says she's heard those concerns but thinks it's more the role of the school district, not the foundation, to address that type of issue.

In all, community leaders here and nationwide say they'll sorely miss Guyer's leadership of the foundation, which is held up as a model of organizations of its type.

'It has served as an entity that keeps the public focused on Portland Public Schools,' said Don McAdams, president of the Broad Institute's Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston.

'It hasn't been just an advocate but a friendly critic, which has said, This is your district, pay attention to it, consider it the most important thing we're doing in Portland.'

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