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  • 19 Dec 2014

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What went wrong? Ockley's era ends

Principal's leadership questioned as PPS blends two campuses


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Conrad Hurdle, principal at Ockley Green for the past four years, says he's done his best to stabilize the school amidst a whirlwind of challenge. His supervisor says PPS hasn't given him the support he's needed.The 24 eighth-graders hovered around the tables, ready to pounce.

It wasn’t candy, electronics or even cash they were eyeing. They were looking at new books: graphic novels like “Amulet,” nonfiction books on car science and baseball, popular series like “Dork Diaries” and young-adult novels like “Once Upon a Curse.”

At their teacher’s command (“Ready, set, book!”), they grabbed the volume they most wanted to read, then settled into a cozy spot in their classroom where they spent the next 50 minutes with their eyes glued to the pages.

“Most kids can read, but they don’t love to read,” says Kristin Moon, who teaches eighth grade at Ockley Green K-8 School in North Portland.

In surveys last year, she says, “they were checking off the box that said they hate to read.”

Moon schedules her “Book Blasts” every few months, whenever she or the school gets a new batch of books. Each student also keeps a “TBR” box, which stands for “to be read.”

“We’re trying to teach them to not just have a book they’re reading, but be thinking about the next one,” Moon says.

The latest batch of 400 books, valued at $5,000, came to Ockley through a grant from the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries. School librarian Kirsten Truman had surveyed students and teachers to find out what they wanted to read, and made sure to buy a diverse selection of genres and culturally relevant titles.

“It’s like being a cultural anthropologist,” Truman said Tuesday morning, as Portland storyteller Will Hornyak visited the school to read to the students in celebration of the grant. “It’s just feeling out what they’re interested in, and responding to it.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Pre-kindergarten students practice their writing in class one morning this week at Ockley Green. The school has a new focus on literacy, but will close this year as it merges with Chief Joseph School. Ockley Green’s focus on literacy this year — through a “Reading Whisperer” program, strategic use of data, and other initiatives — has seen reading scores inch up.

Some say that’s great, but it’s too little, too late. In the past six years, the school has found itself in a vicious spiral of declining enrollment, lost resources, sliding achievement and a bruised reputation in the community.

This fall, Ockley is set to merge with Chief Joseph Elementary, a growing school a mile away, to become a K-8 school that operates from both campuses. Lower grades will be at Chief Joseph, upper grades at Ockley.

The merged school will be led by veteran Principal Molly Chun, who just brought nearby schools Boise-Eliot and Humboldt under one roof.

Although Ockley’s building will live on for the time being, it could soon be shuttered like North Portland’s former Applegate and Kenton elementaries. The schools “merged” with Woodlawn and Chief Joseph in 2006 but now cease to exist.

So what led to Ockley Green’s demise? Could anyone have prevented the closure of another North Portland school? Have PPS leaders learned any lessons from Ockley’s fate?

‘I’m learning

To call it a “triple whammy” or a “perfect storm” is an understatement. The windfall of ill-timed events that have hit Ockley Green are similar to what happened to Jefferson High, which managed to rise from the ashes.

Enrollment at Ockley had begun declining around 10 years ago, as gentrification meant more of Ockley’s historically black family base was moving out of North and Northeast Portland.

Also, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, families had a free pass to transfer from a failing school.

In 2002, there were 475 students at Ockley Green Middle School. When former Superintendent Vicki Phillips converted the school to a K-8 in 2006 as part of a districtwide restructuring, enrollment had dropped to 442.

In 2004, a three-year federal grant for Jefferson cluster schools was supposed to support Ockley as a magnet, until the funds ended a year early.

Under Phillips’ watch, Applegate and Kenton closed due to their small enrollments (fewer than 200 students each), effectively choking off two of Ockley’s three feeder schools. Closing those schools also caused the district to lose the remaining $1.1 million of the grant.

Today, there’s little evidence of the grant except for the sign out front and the school’s technology wiring, which was updated with the grant funds, according to Principal Conrad Hurdle, who’s led the school for four years.

Ockley enrolls a mere 222 students — the smallest K-8 school in the district. As an arts and science magnet it relies on transfers from across the district, without its own neighborhood students to draw from.

The two-story middle school building is nearly empty, with just 13 of its 34 classrooms occupied.

Its demographics and low numbers make Ockley Green one of the most expensive schools in the district to run, spending $6,853 to educate each pupil, second only to King K-8, which spends $8,785. Alliance alternative school ($11,578), Jefferson High ($8,207) and Roosevelt High School ($7,550) top out the scale.

Yet another layer: Two years ago, PPS designated Ockley as a site for two “behavior continuum” classrooms, for students with Individual Education Plans because of intense behavioral needs.

Specifically, they were students who acted out externally, meaning they might be a danger to themselves or others, or they might run from staff because of what’s called social emotional “lagging skills.”

Those 20 or so students who needed such services came to Ockley from across the district. “Sometimes things got unsafe,” Hurdle admits.

The discipline system became so unruly, in fact, that Ockley for the past three years has had the highest suspension rate of any PPS school. This year a total of 106 students were suspended. That’s 39 percent of the school body, compared to the district’s average of 6 percent.

There were 319 suspensions at Ockley last year in all, with some students suspended multiple times. All but six of those incidents were out-of-school suspensions. “We know that’s not good,” Hurdle says. “We’re not proud of it at all.”

Many of those discipline issues were related to the behavior continuum classes, he says. This year Ockley has just one behavior continuum class, and working with those students in the mainstream has helped reduce problems, Hurdle says.

Other efforts Hurdle began this year to improve the climate include quarterly “student development forums,” in which parents are invited to talk to a PPS special education liaison about their child’s needs.

Also, staff members are being trained in a classroom management approach called ENVoY, to improve instruction and behavior.

Yet again, it might be too little, too late.

Teachers have told the Tribune confidentially, for fear of losing their jobs, that they feel Hurdle should have been a stronger advocate for them and the school. After his first year, half the staff left.

Some parents say his style also drove families away. “People left because of him,” says Shanda Justice, a parent leader.

Tammy Tarver is one of those parents. She enrolled her daughter in first grade and her son in kindergarten at Ockley last year because of the magnet program, only to be disappointed at the slim offerings. “It was very misleading,” she says.

Tarver says she also couldn’t get the help she needed for her son, who had an Individual Education Plan and was suspended at least nine times in the course of four months for acting out.

She says she was forced to pull him out of school, get a home instructor for her son and, as a single parent, quit attending Portland Community College for the business degree she was pursuing.

Tarver — who says her son and daughter are now at another PPS school in Northeast Portland — is outraged that Ockley’s systematic problems seem to have gone unchecked for so long. “Ockley parents are complaining, the staff is complaining, and nothing is getting done,” she says. “Some other parents wouldn’t let that fly over at da Vinci (middle school), so why are you allowing it to happen on our side of town?”

Antonio Lopez, the PPS regional director who oversees Ockley along with the rest of the Jefferson and Franklin clusters, knows emotions have run high. “We have to rebuild relationships with the teachers, with the community,” he says. “We could’ve done better by the community.”

Superintendent Carole Smith acknowledges Hurdle’s “mixed reviews” from parents, but credits him with a number of initiatives he brought to try to stabilize the school.

“He brought in a new pre-K, the Right Brain Initiative, showed up as an advocate for his school,” Smith says.

Hurdle admits it’s been an emotional year, but he’s been trying to finish the year strong.

“Do we have to do better? You bet,” says Hurdle, who grew up in Northeast Portland, about four blocks from Ockley Green. He attended Elliot School (which later became Tubman Middle School), Holy Redeemer, and then Benson Polytechnic, graduating in 1991. He came to PPS 14 years ago to teach at Woodlawn School, then oversaw the 160-student Hollyrood campus of Beverly Cleary School. He served quick administrative posts at the Whitaker-Rice Sixth Grade Center and Rosa Parks Elementary, then took his first principal job at Ockley in 2009.

“I know people feel differently about me and my leadership,” he says. “I’m learning.”

A better fit

Lopez says he’s been working to repair the morale among the staff and the community since coming on a year ago.

He doesn’t blame Hurdle — he blames the district for placing a new principal in what he calls a “losing situation.” “(Hurdle) was advocating to the best of his ability. It was a struggle.”

Lopez says one lesson the district has learned from the Ockley experience is to find ways to sustain grant-funded programs before the money runs out.

Another lesson, he says, is to be more mindful of principal posts.

Many have wondered why Hurdle was allowed to remain on the job for so long while his school was in decline. Hurdle adamantly denies that he had any reason to receive preferential treatment from his former supervisor.

Smith says Hurdle’s skill set as principal will be a good fit for his new school, Creston K-8, a 345-student school in Southeast Portland’s Foster-Powell neighborhood: “How do we support him being somewhere without the complicating factors? I think Creston is a good fit for him, where you don’t put all the other factors on an individual’s head.”

Scott Bailey, a Northeast Portland schools activist, is infuriated that principals don’t receive more support when they need it, considering that they’re key to student achievement, parent involvement and partnerships between the school and community.

Bailey says he’s heard some of the notorious stories about Ockley and other schools struggling with similar issues.

“A root cause of enrollment issues at many schools is weak principals,” he says. “It can take years for a school to rebuild its reputation after having a low-performing principal. Too often, PPS defends a weak principal or dumps them on another school. It’s been an issue for decades.”

Another factor is the increasing demands of the principal job: “someone who’s great with the community, is an educational leader, has management skills, knows about facilities, has budget skills,” Bailey says. “It’s rare to have all that. Maybe it’s time to rethink the position and redesign it so we get better results.”

Adds Tarver, the parent whose kindergartener was repeatedly suspended: “I think the district has a duty to make sure every school has adequate and effective leadership. They should stop the shuffle of people who are not proven to have success stories with kids.”

Creston PTA President Lisa Kensel says she and other parent leaders will keep an open mind as Hurdle begins his post there.

In the principal selection process, Kensel says she and other school leaders had asked that their new leader be energetic and work well with an open-door policy, which they’re used to. They have a committed parent and teacher base but want to improve their capture rate — the percentage of families in the neighborhood who enroll at the school rather than opt for another choice.

In a way, that challenge is similar to the one Ockley Green faced: a small school battling preconceived notions about its program.

Moira Koskey, parent of a second-grader at Ockley, calls herself the school’s biggest ambassador.

“We fight some negative misconceptions a lot, but the staff is so dedicated and there’s so much heart at this school,” she says. She chose to transfer three years ago from the Vernon neighborhood after visiting “a ton” of kindergarten roundups, and going with her gut. “I have not regretted a single moment,” she says.

Koskey, who is white, says she was brought to tears during the school’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, and is proud that her son has friends who look different from him.

“I’m probably one of the only parents in Portland that can say my kid was the only white kid at a birthday party,” she jokes.

Koskey loves how the coach and P.E. teacher at Ockley calls all the kids “his favorites,” and appreciates the effort her son’s teachers make to be sure he’s challenged in class.

“Is my child happy and getting a good education? I can say yes,” she says. “I feel like Ockley Green needs parents to believe in the school and lift it up. It’s the same for all the schools in the Jefferson cluster, so we can come together and create something awesome.”