My View: Administration intransigence at MLC fuels parents' resentment, anger

Like hundreds of frustrated parents, I am concerned by the choices that Portland Public Schools is making by placing, developing and managing administrators in our schools.

Parents from numerous schools — Beaumont, Creston, Beach, Atkinson, Ainsworth, Sellwood Middle School, Metropolitan Learning Center, Duniway and Chief Joseph, to name a fraction — have independently formed reluctant activist groups this year in response to some troubling and consistent trends seen across the district:

• Autocratic administrators who are perceived as bulldozers by parents, teachers and students.

• Principals being placed at schools who do not have the experience, background or support to lead effectively.

• Lack of assessment and accountability for how these administrators are qualitatively performing.

I have to ponder what the district is doing wrong as an institution for these problems to be so pervasive. As an organizational and leadership development consultant, I have to ask the question, “What does the district value and reward if these are the signature struggles now?” And how long can they sit on the sidelines, taking no substantive action to solve root cause issues, much less put out fires?

In the absence of any kind of formal and transparent principal evaluation process — which the teachers union has been fighting for, to no avail — it has become nearly impossible to shine a light on the issues without working outside the system itself. It’s bizarre that profit-based corporations consistently measure and reward leaders for performance, both quantitative and qualitative, yet our tax-funded institutions that produce our future leaders do not.

At the Metropolitan Learning Center, where two of my children attend school, it goes deeper. Both members of the administrative team that was appointed during the past three years have no background in the constructivist, interdisciplinary, experiential methodology that MLC is based on. They also do not value it. That has been reflected in communications, strategy and operations.

Teachers have been punished for using practices reflective of these methodologies. Schedule changes have reduced time blocks, making expeditiary learning and participation in college-level courses next to impossible.

When parents have expressed concern and asked questions, they have been accused of not being

respectful of authority and told they do not deserve dialogue. Teachers and staff who simply ask questions out of concern are accused of being insubordinate.

The principal has a long-documented history across PPS posts (well-known to the district) of trouble with senior staff members, creating favored and unfavored factions, using race as a smoke-and-mirrors tactic to avoid discussing issues and communicating in ways that are nothing short of unprofessional and hostile.

While MLC leads the district in test scores and is nationally lauded as a model for alternative education, the district for some reason has placed an administrative team there that does not understand or value the school’s unique purpose and is systematically eroding its value.

At first, the district’s response was to cite racism as the core cause of the conflicts, reinforcing the principal’s stance. Then the district backed off and decided it was discomfort with necessary changes due to budget cuts and increased regulatory demands.

However, there have been no budget cuts to speak of. The regulatory statute does not clearly support the necessity of the changes and the alternative status of the school affords the district flexibility it is choosing not to apply.

It appears that the district has been caught with its pants down. It made a mistake in appointing an administrative team that was a poor fit in regard to experience, pedagogical orientation and the critical competencies of collaboration and democratic leadership that are must-haves to support the distinctive MLC model and mission.

MLC is an alternative school and that status supports the provision of education in nonstandardized ways. Indeed, those ways are critical if the school is to be true to its status, providing an alternative environment where kids who would not thrive in typical schools can continue to do so.

If the district wants to redeem itself, it will work to acknowledge the root causes of the fit issues at MLC that go beyond race and regulations. It will actively reverse the erosion that has occurred and assure that all staff and administrators can and do make strategic and operational choices in alignment with the school’s mission. It will protect the future of

MLC by putting formal policy in place that will provide an anchor regardless of the style and values of future administrators. If it wants to solve districtwide pervasive problems, the district will aggressively support the union contract request for meaningful principal evaluation. It will examine long and hard why it has the problems it has and what that says about its institutional values and ways of operating.

Will PPS demonstrate integrity?

Dana Brenner-Kelley has two children at the Metropolitan Learning Center and operates Leading Effect, a coaching and consulting firm in Portland and Seattle.

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