Trillium Charter School roils in turmoil
Trillium Charter School Interim Executive Director Patrice Mays was shocked at the outpouring of frustration and anger with her at a Wednesday, Dec. 13, board meeting at the North Portland school.
"It was scary," Mays said.
She offered a succinct explanation for what's going on at the school — which many describe as a wonderful place, while simultaneously complaining fiercely about it.
"It becomes like family," Mays said, noting how heavily involved parents are in the tiny Pre-K-12 public charter school. "It's a complex relationship."
According to documents obtained by the Portland Tribune, 132 students left the school from June to Dec. 15 of this year. Enrollment was down to 319 students in a school that has a maximum capacity of 365.
Critics have different explanations for why the once-lauded school is faltering: It lacks competent leadership from Mays and its board; teachers are too inexperienced and turnover is high; too many students are high-needs; parents are too permissive; the teaching style isn't geared toward test-taking; funding is too low; and Portland Public Schools, its regulator, doesn't take a strong enough hand.
There also is another element that few want to talk openly about: race.
'None of us were ever good enough'
Mays became emotional when asked if she feels people are judging her too harshly because she is African-American. She answered indirectly, relaying a conversation with her mom, who was present at the Dec. 13 meeting when about 80 staff and parents angrily voiced their concerns. Kellie Shaw, the school's board president, is also an African-American woman, and so is the most recently appointed board member, Linda Harris, a former PPS principal.
"(My mom) saw three black women sitting up there at the board meeting and a bunch of white parents who were not happy," Mays said. "Well, mom, I get it, but I don't want to make it about race. I want to make it about student excellence."
Lauren Stanton, who taught middle school for three years at Trillium, said race issues "very much so" played into the school's political divides.
Stanton, who currently lives in Central America, says board president Shaw used to bring her to the point of tears, yelling at her teacher team for failing students of color. Stanton strongly rejects that criticism, saying she and her fellow teachers were unusually high-caliber and worked to exhaustion, yet "none of us were ever good enough."
Shaw declined an interview request.
Mays did say it was curious that many staff of color chose to leave in the last year. "There was like a: 'Wow, a lot of teachers of color left. Wow. What's going on?'"
One former teacher of color, speaking on condition that her name wouldn't be revealed, said the school's problems centered on a lot of "bratty white kids and parents that do not give them enough boundaries ... Not to say all families were that way, but it was a hard place to work."
One white school staffer who also spoke on the condition of anonymity said Mays hides her incompetence in race issues.
"There is no meeting with her that she does not take offense with — and brings race into it," the staffer said. "She's just mean. She's in over her head ... I have never seen such a poorly run business."
Lack of leadership, organization
The school was struggling long before Mays was appointed in June. Kieran Connolly, who is white, resigned as executive director last year to take a job in Mosier, and many say he left the school disorganized and failing.
Trillium parent Dekin Hom took a job as the school cook this year to be more involved in his son's school.
"I had no idea all of this was going on at the school," Hom said. "When I found out, it upset me."
He said Mays set unrealistic expectations for his job, which included food procurement. He quit in November.
"Granted, Kieran was terrible, but she's a whole new level," Hom said. Connolly did not respond to requests for comment.
Sabrina Taylor-Schmidtt, parent of a first-grader, shut down the Dec. 13 board meeting after 90 minutes by loudly interrupting a discussion on the school budget, to express her frustration with a lack of leadership and communication. That was met with applause and cheers from the large crowd of staff, parents and students gathered.
"I am very concerned with the atmosphere at this school," Taylor-Schmidtt said, accusing the board of not knowing how to run a meeting and Mays of failing to return multiple emails and phone calls.
Mays said she inherited a lot of challenges and that she's had to make unpopular decisions due to low enrollment. She also admitted that she had no idea, as a teacher, what it took to run the charter school.
"You would be surprised how much work would go into making sure we are right with our district," she said. "And in compliance with state law, that we are doing what needs to be done as a school to make sure we are meeting our charter."
Disconnected school board
Parents and students also feel disconnected from their school board, saying they don't know the board members, whose job it is to oversee the executive director and the budget. Two of the members have children at the school, but four others do not. Many parents complained they don't see them in the school or at events.
The board is not elected by and among parents, like a PTA, but has been structured more like a nonprofit board. The board appoints its own members, who currently all have professional experience in education, to two-year terms.
There is now a movement to install one or two teacher advisers to the board and a student representative, and the board is developing policies around that for a January vote.
"Currently, it seems like there's a big disconnect between what the board is doing and what our needs are," said Patrick Magee-Jenks, a high school social studies teacher and president of the school's new chapter of the Oregon School Employees Association, now affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.
Magee-Jenks said unsafe conditions abound at the school from out-of-control kids because the administration won't intervene. "After the in-class methods have been exhausted, there's no next step."
The school uses restorative justice-style discipline, which involves a lot of talking circles and significantly more work and buy-in than simply expelling a student, Mays said.
"I've seen restorative justice work really well here," the interim executive director said, adding that if offenses are safety-related or "really egregious," suspensions and expulsions are still an option. "I think by and large we are responsive. We're not ignoring the problems."
One person who left last spring spoke with the Tribune on condition that her name wouldn't be revealed. She said she didn't feel Trillium was a positive space for students, as there were too many competing philosophies and it had become a magnet for high-needs students.
"What I think is happening is that the school is becoming really specialized in the needs that the students have, and they need smaller class sizes for that and there certainly isn't the funding for that," she said. She added that students are learning there are no consequences for their actions and non-participation.
Poor test scores
Portland Public Schools, which regulates the school, mentioned in its 2016-17 annual report on Trillium that reading and math scores for grades 3 to 8 were far below district schools. And it notes the board failed to complete a required evaluation of the executive director.
While Trillium high schoolers exceeded state expectations, for the elementary school cohort, just 26 percent met state standards in reading, compared to 59.2 percent in the district. In math, only 10 percent met standards, compared to the district's average of 50.6 percent.
Mays told the board Dec. 13 that this is partly due to the need to familiarize students with testing tools and said the school must boost participation rates, as many parents have their children opt-out of state tests. Mays added that she is exploring new curriculum options, but those will cost money.
Because of falling enrollment, Trillium is facing a $265,000 shortfall in state funding, according to a financial report given by board member Paul Koehler.
This fall, all five administrators were new to their positions and three of those newly hired administrators have already left. That includes the principal of the Upper School — the middle and high school grades, which is vacant. Several other positions, such as the student support specialists and others, also are vacant.
"Quite a few staff left before I even took this job," Mays said. "We're trying to get settled."
Tracy MacDonald, a parent of a junior and a first-grader at the school, said she loves Trillium, but is considering pulling her kids out next year if things don't improve.
"We need to save this school," MacDonald said.
PPS did not produce records or expert commentary on the school by Monday, more than two weeks after they were requested. Close to press deadline, a spokesman finally offered a statement on the school, more of which can be read below.
"Per charter school statute, PPS does not have a role in the governance of charter schools as school districts serve as 'authorizers.' We refer complaints to the Trillium board," reads the statement from PPS spokesman Dave Northfield. "The district does perform regular site visits and monitors charter schools closely, including attending meetings of the Trillium and other charter school boards."
Kate Pattison, Oregon Department of Education Charter School specialist, said it is ultimately up to PPS what happens to the school — for example, whether to close or restructure it.
"They are public schools," Pattison said of charters. "They are accountable to many of the same standards as traditional public schools. They have flexibility in exchange for accountability. Yes, you can do some things different, but that doesn't mean you can do whatever you want."
PPS statement on Trillium
"We listen to complaints and take them seriously. When we receive a complaint we inform and refer complainants to the Charter School's board. If child safety is a concern we immediately follow up. The PPS Charter Director follows up with the Executive Director of the Charter School to ensure communication of the complaint was brought forward to appropriate channels.
Per Charter School statute, PPS does not have a role in the governance of charter schools as school districts serve as 'authorizers'. We refer complaints to the Trillium board. PPS will step in and phone the Department of Human Services Child Welfare if we have reason to believe that there is an imminent threat to safety. The district does perform regular site visits and monitors Charter Schools closely, including attending meetings of the Trillium and other Charter School boards.
We are aware that this has been a difficult year for the Trillium k-12 Charter School. Since July 1, Trillium has experienced turnover in a number of key positions, including executive director and board chair. The district does support Trillium with ongoing site visits, special education supports, monthly Charter Director meetings to examine student data and relevant professional development offered through our PPS Learning Campus.
School administrators became aware in October that Trillium did not meet performance benchmarks in math for the second year. For that reason, administrators have been directed to create a plan of improvement to increase student achievement for math in grades 3-8."