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Closure would derail Woodlawn's progress

My View: Community reaction to PPS plans for K-8 school highlights growth in behavior


Bullying. Intimidation. Racism.

These were the words that jumped off the page at me. As a new Positive Behavior Interventions Coach assigned to Woodlawn School, I was overwhelmed.

These were the words parents used to describe Woodlawn School, a Pre-K-8 in the Jefferson Cluster of Portland.

These words tore at my heart. As a parent and teacher, I know how important a safe school is to us all.

This information came from surveys that Portland Public Schools had collected from parents, students and teachers. These are yearly surveys, and drive academic and behavioral work.

We began to examine common areas, classrooms and programs. Sadly, we saw it. But we also saw beauty: The pre-K teacher who instills love of learning along with love for others; the primary teacher who greets each child with a handshake and a moment of undivided, unconditional attention; and, the special education team that supports the K-8 autism spectrum classrooms and promotes understanding of special needs throughout the community.

We also saw the community members who look out for one another, share resources and help wherever and whenever it is needed. We saw the toddlers who come with their parents to pack weekend backpacks of food for some of our families and proudly announce how one day they will be a Woodlawn Wildcat.

With the encouragement of Principal Robin Morrison, the support of my supervisor, Tammy Jackson; my PBIS partner, Drew Laurence; and two amazing Woodlawn parents, Cheryl Russell and Luretta Timmons, we began our work.

We created a forum for parents to share their feelings. Our first meeting was disappointing: it was two parents, two staff members and me. We didn’t let it deter us. Every parent, teacher and community member was invited, many times.

During the next months, attendance grew.

We invited speakers on bullying and equity. We examined our own belief systems, and challenged our children do the same. We created a parent action plan of activities and events to increase positive climate.

We asked for volunteers for a student program to be called “Upstanders.” It was open to all students, fourth through eighth grades, and had one goal: to stand up to bullying by being kind to those who are hurt.

We role played, practiced and brainstormed, and within a few weeks were seeing student leaders bloom. Those student leaders and our PTA organized school events and movie nights. We took solemn pledges to eradicate bullying in our school.

Within six months, we felt a difference. Our meetings continued to grow, and we added a Facebook page to share information and ideas. We now counted more than 40 members and 30 Upstanders.

Then the news hit. There were to be more changes in North Portland schools. We were again being “redistributed.”

There wasn’t much fear at first. There were six scenarios put forth and none much affected Woodlawn.

We went on with our work, sad for those on the line, but focused on our own business at hand. Principal Morrison continued to support our efforts. The school created a Positive Behavior Interventions Support and equity team, and their work has been phenomenal.

Positive behavior supports and interventions are in place in the common areas and in classrooms, teachers volunteered to take classes in classroom management and interventions. Our Playworks coach, Abby Peterson, taught positive problem solving on the playground and helped create “Team Woodlawn” T-shirts and buttons.

We began to share kudos at every staff meeting. We were on a roll.

Two weeks ago, the final two scenarios were released. Woodlawn was up for closure. We were shocked. It was at this point I truly saw the growth we had made and the feeling of community we had created.

Parents who had previously criticized our school were crying about the possible closure. Students who had referred to us as “a ghetto school” were willing to fight to remain, citing their love for their teachers and community.

The Culture of Kindness meeting held the evening after the announcement was truly the most meaningful event in my 25-year career in education.

It has been more than a year since I first stepped into Woodlawn School, feeling overwhelmed and underqualified for the task ahead. Data taken has shown we are not imagining the changes, and although the yearly survey data has not yet been released for 2012, I am confident we will see the progress in writing, along with the absence of that word that started it all: “bullying.”

Liz Delmatoff of Northeast Portland is a Positive Behavior Interventions Support coach for Portland Public Schools.