Middle school leaders focus on discipline, planning time

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - George Middle School Principal Ben Keefer works with students as he fills in to teach an English Language Development class.It’s just before 9 a.m. last Thursday, and groups of boys and girls cluster in the chilly fog just outside North Portland’s George Middle School.

They drink soda, pore over their smartphones and music, and ride scooters and skateboards — until Principal Ben Keefer steps outside for morning duty. The doors open soon, and school starts at 9:15 a.m.

But for now, he has about five minutes to get the day off to a good start.

“J.J., c’mon!” he says to one of the skateboarders who didn’t head across the street when they saw Keefer coming. Skateboarding is prohibited on school grounds for liability reasons.

“What now?” J.J. says.

“You know you can’t do that;” Keefer replies, apologetically referring to the policy set by “us old fuddy-duddies.” J.J. listens and crosses the street with his friends.

Hardly an old fuddy-duddy, Keefer is in his late 30s and uses it to his advantage. He grew up on a skateboard, worked at a skate shop in high school and still hops on a board now and then.

A few minutes later as students start heading inside, J.J. walks past, smiling at Keefer as he sees him carrying his board.

“Well done,” Keefer acknowledges. “I’ll bring my board sometime; we can go cruise — not on school property.”

The all-encompassing role of a principal nowadays is in the spotlight, as an increasing number of demands are placed on them. A handful of PPS schools have had their share of problems with principals. After

going unresolved, the complaints gain steam districtwide as parents mobilize and form groups like Parents for Excellent Portland Principals, which just brought new issues to the school board’s attention last week (see sidebar).

The Tribune shadowed Keefer on the job last Thursday as part of the 13th annual Principal for a Day, presented by the nonprofit All Hands Raised. A hundred elected, civic and business leaders matched up with principals and superintendents throughout PPS as well as the Reynolds, Centennial, Gresham and David Douglas school districts.

A quiet day

Back at George, Keefer — a 10-year PPS principal in his third year at George — will be thrown a startling mix of small fires to put out, which he handles quickly, calmly and with the grace of a quarterback.

He counsels a boy who brought in a small knife (and would’ve received an immediate expulsion under the district’s old zero-tolerance policy); jumps on hiring an overqualified teacher for a hard-to-fill spot; fixes lockers; picks up trash; checks in on the group of Latina moms who use the community room regularly for everything from salsa classes to computer, parenting and communication skills workshops.

“Every last Thursday they have a potluck and invite me,” Keefer says. “They’ve got me figured out.”

In the midst of morning duty, he’s confronted by a dad who corners him to talk about his daughter being harassed. Keefer brings the school counselor over to discuss and they have a conference for a few minutes.

“Girl drama,” Keefer says afterward. “You want to squash it early, or it runs the show.”

As he walks down the hall, responding to constant squawks from the office on his walkie-talkie, he’s even told there’s no teacher for an English Language Development class that’s just about to start.

The special schedule — for the student council speeches at assembly today — means one part-time teacher had booked another substitute job during the time she’s normally free, and was unable to change it.

No worries — Keefer was an elementary school teacher in Beaverton for seven years before his start in administration at Skyline School.

He’d gone into mechanical engineering at Oregon State University but did a volunteer stint in a classroom, loved it, and switched his major to education. He loves going back to the classroom.

“Hey folks, we’re gonna be working on a packet today called ‘How does your skin grow;’ kinda creepy,” Keefer tells the dozen students who file in, all with English scribbled all over their notebooks but needing levels of English language support.

A third of the students at George are Hispanic; another 30 percent are black; there are also sizable Asian, Pacific Islander and Native American populations. Twenty two percent are white. Nearly 90 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.

Keefer, whose wife also is a PPS teacher, spends the next half-hour walking around the room, pulling up a chair next to students who need help on the vocabulary-intensive health lesson.

It’s a quiet day today, compared to many school days in recent memory. A gang shooting down the block a few weeks ago forced the school into lockdown; it was one of the students’ stepfathers who died.

Thursday’s P.E. lesson focused on identifying ways students are “stressed out” in their lives and dealing with that through positive ways.

Most days, the biggest challenge at George, Keefer says, is to find enough time for staff to plan and sort out everything they need to do, so they can tackle the unending work.

The other major focus is to get a handle on behavior and discipline, Keefer says. He encourages students to try to resolve their issues through peer mediators or traditional mediation before they erupt into fights on the bus or outbursts in class.

Suspensions have been replaced by “Saturday School” — a five- or six-hour weekend session that includes talking with Keefer himself, community service, and making up missing work. “They need more school, not less,” Keefer says.

There’s also districtwide equity work under way, which aims to address the fact that black boys are more than twice as likely to be disciplined. Keefer’s office staff joke that they have to remind him to eat lunch — he’s always on the go.

“There’s a frenetic pace to school,” he says. “There’s a lot of things you have to do all the time. If you try to take everything on without thinking about how they go together, it would be impossible.”

Principal accountability is focus of new complaint, requests

Parents for Excellent Principals — a Portland Public Schools watchdog group that formed earlier this year — is keeping the heat on district administrators.

At the Oct. 21 school board meeting, a lineup of parents testified about their latest concerns with the building leaders at two schools in particular: Beach K-8 and Metropolitan Learning Center.

The parents pushed an ongoing investigation at MLC to the next level, formally requesting an external “Level 3” (superintendent-level) review of the alleged violations they’ve cited. (Level 1 complaints go to the principal; Level 2 complaints go to the principal’s supervisor, the area director.)

This latest complaint, a 35-page document filed by parent Bruce Scherer, alleges MLC Principal Macarre Traynham and Vice Principal Jeff Spalding breached state and federal laws as well as board policies.

A PPS spokeswoman did not have a comment on the MLC complaint.

School activist Rita Moore, a member of PEPP, also presented a list of nine requests from her group to the board. So far the board hasn’t provided a response.

Some of the group’s requests are budgetary matters, like reinstating the PPS ombudsman to track and help resolve complaints.

Others have to do with board-level policy changes, like examining district practices for placing and preparing principals; revising the harassment policy to include parents and family members; and ensuring there are no real or perceived conflicts when assigning investigators for principal complaint reviews.

Other requests will require deeper discussions, like asking PPS to “refrain from dismissal of complaints by citing racism as the motivator without conducting an actual investigation.”

Parents are fired up for systemwide discussions about accountability.

At MLC, for instance, the school's alternative status gives it more leeway in many areas, like enrollment and programming.

But for weeks, parents have been asking PPS leaders for clarity on how much freedom that status allows.

"How much authority for decision-making should a principal have, and how much should the district weigh in?" PEPP member and MLC parent Dana Brenner-Kelley asked the board.

Brenner-Kelley also raised the question of how much the district should be training junior administrators, and matching them with an appropriate school. Finally, she invoked a weighty and sensitive question: Are principals of color being promoted too rapidly?

Traynham, who is black, has been a vice prinicpal at Benson, Jefferson and Lincoln high since 2004, with prior teaching experience in California. This is her third year at MLC.

Spalding, who is white, taught at Benson for 22 years and was a vice principal at Madison and Grant. This is his fourth year at MLC.

"The district's rhetoric has been to sniff at these reports as racist because it is easy and gives them an illusory moral high ground while being lazy," Scherer told the Tribune this week. "That needs to change. I see parents and students working very hard to make the school better and help the district avoid potential lawsuits. ... That we're seeing similar blithe disregard for authentic parent concerns in some other schools is even more troubling.

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