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Take a closer look at our classrooms

Earlier this month, I spent the day at Chief Joseph Elementary School in North Portland through the Portland Schools Foundation's wonderful 'Principal for a Day' program.

I've visited a lot of schools across the country, some very good and some not so good, and I wasn't sure what to expect based on all of the questions I hear around town about Portland Public Schools.

What I saw firsthand in the 11 classes I observed as a principal for a day surprised me.

In a kindergarten classroom, young students moved quietly, with intense focus, through a series of learning stations. At one, they listened to 'Where the Wild Things Are' while following the book. At another, they measured the length of different objects. They asked their teacher for help when they needed it, and brought her their assignments for review. When a girl approached with her paper, I expected the teacher to give a cursory nod and move on. Instead, she closely engaged the child and asked: 'Is this your best work?' After making an excuse or two, the young student agreed that she could do better and went back to her worktable to improve what she had done.

At Chief Joseph, expectations are high. Teachers, and their students, feel accountable for reaching those expectations.

Throughout the day, I saw committed, effective teachers coping as best they could with large classes. With just one exception, the teachers managed their classrooms of 25 to 30 students with great skill, though it was clear that students were getting less individualized attention than they would have received with smaller classes.

I saw eager students. Chief Joseph is an ethnically diverse school with a lot of kids from low-income families. It's the kind of school naysayers would look at and say: 'Excellence isn't possible.'

Yet this school, like so many others in Portland, exemplifies the belief that every child can and must succeed. In nearly every classroom I visited, students were engaged in relevant, challenging assignments. Teachers skillfully orchestrated the kind of self-directed and group learning that mirrors the requirements of our globalized economy.

I saw a tremendous effort, despite resources limited by a decade of state budget cuts, to give struggling students the help they need to learn to read. I saw teachers and parents going above and beyond to prevent children from suffering the worst effects of the cuts that have plunged Oregon below the national average in spending per pupil.

The fifth-grade teacher who conducts marching band practice after school also leads a chess club attended by more than 90 students. Parent and community volunteers read to children during lunchtime. A local nonprofit provides intensive one-on-one sessions with slow readers.

Behind all of this, I saw a terrific principal. Principal Kathy Jaffe has built a culture of high expectations and accountability. A teacher who had come from another school told me that Jaffe's hands-on approach has helped her plan more thoroughly and, as a result, teach at a higher level.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Phillips is setting clearer guidelines for principals and providing more support to help them develop into strong instructional leaders like Kathy Jaffe. Phillips is streamlining curriculum so that classrooms across the district teach core subjects in the same proven way. Through conversations with several teachers, it was clear how much educators respect the superintendent's vision and applaud her reforms.

What I saw at Chief Joseph gave me confidence that the critical changes Phillips has initiated will make effective teaching and learning the norm at schools around the district.

That is, if we don't let the bottom fall out of the district's funding. Teachers, parents and volunteers are doing their part at schools like Chief Joseph. The question is: Will we as a community continue to do our part?

Portland Public Schools hasn't always had an effective leader at the helm. The district has made mistakes in the past Ñ high-profile mistakes, in fact Ñ that led many voters like me to wonder whether our schools are being managed well.

If you have questions, as I did, I urge you to take another look.

These are tough times for many in our community. Utility and health care costs are through the roof, and gas prices have never been higher. Having 8-month-old twins, I can certainly empathize with the economic pressures many Portlanders are facing.

Personally, I expect our schools to use resources as carefully as my wife and I have to. Based on what I saw at Chief Joseph, and all of the cost savings the school board and superintendent have achieved in the past few years, I'm convinced Portland Public Schools is a careful steward of scarce resources. If you're not convinced, I urge you to take another look.

Because a good education has never been more critical for success in life, for the sake of all of those eager students who are in classes that are too big, I ask you to open your minds and open your hearts and take another look, as I did a few weeks ago during my visit to Chief Joseph.

If you do, I guarantee that you'll like what you see.

Jonah Edelman is executive director of Stand for Children, a statewide citizen voice for children with 4,000 members.