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'Whiteness is constantly thrown in our face'

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Faubion School African-Brazilian instructor Chuk Barber stops his class, pointing out students for not keeping the correct rhythm.Portland Public School leaders spend a lot of time talking about race.

So much so that last week, PPS sent no less than 93 teachers, principals and administrators to San Antonio, Texas, to attend and present at the 4th Annual Summit on Courageous Conversations.

“Courageous Conversations,” to the uninitiated, is the framework for equity training that the district adopted in 2007 and began rolling out to the schools this year.

The final costs of the San Antonio trip aren’t yet tallied but could come to thousands of dollars, not counting the cost of substitutes to cover their positions at school during the five-day event.

But now teachers and staff at Harvey Scott K-8 School in Northeast Portland say the focus on race has gone too far, since Verenice Gutierrez became principal in 2010.

Two months ago, Gutierrez landed in the national spotlight when bloggers and radio talk show hosts gleefully mocked her offhand remark, quoted in a Tribune news story, about the use of a peanut butter sandwich as an example of cultural sensitivity.

Gutierrez was explaining how students raised outside the United States might be left out of a lesson unless teachers make it culturally relevant.

Now the staff at Scott School say that while they believe their principal is well-intentioned, her focus on race has instead created a hostile environment for students, staff and families.

“We all agree in teaching Courageous Conversations,” says one teacher. “The issue is, it’s gone past the point of comfort. Even the kids of whiteness in our building feel they aren’t part of the building anymore.”

Adds another teacher: “Our whiteness is constantly thrown in our face. We’re taught we’re incapable of teaching students of color.”

The teachers are among 20 current and former Scott School staff members who agreed to speak with the Tribune on the condition of anonymity, in fear of retaliation or losing their jobs. Teachers have filed grievances and sought other remedies through their union, to no avail.

Making their struggles public is a last resort, they say. Many were heartbroken about deciding to leave the school because of their frustrations.

Some of the fallout includes:

• A mass exodus by staff. At the end of the 2010-11 school year, Gutierrez’ first year at Scott, 26 teachers (about half the staff) left. Eight followed the next year.

• Gutierrez and staff have discussed the problem of “white flight,” with many white families leaving the building. Enrollment dropped 50 students in three years, to about 500. K-8 schools lose funding for half a counseling position if they fall under 500.

• Mediators have come to Scott multiple times to lead staff meetings, all paid for by the district. Among them is equity coach Kim Feicke, whose biography cites her expertise in working with “white educators to understand the impact of white culture on teaching, learning and school culture in order to effectively shift current practices.”

Gutierrez declined to comment for this story. Her direct supervisor, PPS Regional Administrator Karl Logan, told the Tribune that he’s aware of the issues at Scott and has spoken to Gutierrez and the union about the complaints he’s received.

The way he looks at it by student achievement. Scott was just designated as a “focus” school by the state, among the bottom 15 percent on many measures. “You have to ask the question, were kids being successful there (before Gutierrez arrived). If the answer is no ... the building leader should be making changes and requesting different practices at that school; we can’t continue to have students failing.”

A sense of urgency

Like the neighborhood it represents, Harvey Scott is a high-poverty school, 52 percent Latino, 20 percent white, 13 percent black (mostly Somali) and 8 percent Asian (mostly Vietnamese).

Gutierrez, 40, is not shy about sharing her personal history with her school community. She supplied all seventh- and eighth-graders with a tri-fold flier about herself, called “Why I lead the way I lead: A sense of urgency.” It details her bilingual, bicultural roots in El Paso, raised by her Mexico-born parents and the first in her family to attend college.

Gutierrez frequently talks about her desire for Scott to become a Spanish immersion school, to overcome the problems with a “monolinguist” society.

This month, she told staff about how she wants to improve communication with families: “I say to HR, I only want to interview bilingual (teachers) and they don’t get it. That’s what Scott needs.”

But some of the bilingual teachers at Scott, who happen to be white, say they feel alienated because of the color of their skin.

Gutierrez told her staff that after one white bilingual teacher left, “I made sure we got a native speaker (as her replacement) ... so there’s no accent.”

Logan, the regional administrator, says whiteness does not refer to skin color in the district’s equity language. “I have whiteness in me and I’m a black man,” he says. “It doesn’t speak to color. It’s about the predominant culture. If we’re not aware of how much we take that for granted, we will all of us miss the opportunity to improve student learning.”

More progress

Before coming to Scott, Gutierrez was assistant principal at Hosford Middle School in Southeast Portland for two years. She’d been a bilingual teacher in Texas for a few years before getting her administrator’s license in New Mexico in 2007.

Two of the tenets of Courageous Conversations are to “speak your truth” and “focus on the personal, local and immediate.”

She takes every opportunity to do so, even writing a memo to her staff one day to describe her encounter with a student: “I asked him what color his skin is and he stated, ‘black.’ I then went into how society typecasts people of color and how expectations of us are lower simply because of the color of our skin. As I was speaking about our skin color he said, ‘But you are white.’ ” This statement stopped me dead and I can honestly say that it is the most devastating statement a child has ever made to me.”

A gap in achievement

Among PPS’ 93-person delegation at the Courageous Conversations summit last week, 24 of them were presenters at various “break-out” sessions.

Gutierrez was one of four PPS principals who gave a talk entitled: “Uncle Tom, Banana, Oreo, Coconut, Apple ... People of Color, We Need to Talk,” the premise being that those derogatory terms are used to describe people of color who are perceived as “acting white.”

The cost of the 24 presenters comes from the PPS Office of Equity’s budget. The office has grown from one to seven employees in the past year.

Other attendees — including Superintendent Carole Smith — have their costs paid by professional development budgets at their schools or departments. Teachers are allowed a stipend for professional development such as this under their union contract.

A smaller equity training is happening this week at a five-day summit in Cottage Grove, hosted by the North Portland’s Oregon Center for Educational Equity. Seven staff members from Scott School attended, at a price tag of about $9,450, not counting the cost of hiring six substitutes for five days.

Matt Shelby, district spokesman, says the need for the investment is backed up by data: “Look at any way we measure student success or achievement, and there’s a gap between students of color and white students,” he says.

PPS’ four-year graduation rate for the class of 2011 was a dismal 62 percent, with a glaring racial disparity: White students had a rate of 67 percent, black students 54 percent, Hispanic students 49 percent and Native American students 44 percent.

To any suggestion that the district’s equity money could be used to hire teachers instead, Shelby counters: “To just hire more teachers gets you more of the same. Obviously when you look at our data the status quo isn’t working.”