Parents, staff and students describe an unsafe school culture where academics suffer; some fifth graders even struggle to read.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - K-1 teacher Erika Almskaar shares her concerns of the violent behavior at Trillium Charter School.Emotions ran high at a town hall meeting Wednesday evening at Trillium Charter School in North Portland. Dozens of the school's parents, staff and high school students packed the cafeteria, asking their board and interim executive director tough questions, describing a school in chaos.

"I fear our school is sick and in need of emergency care," said Niko Boskovic, a celebrated teen poet who attends the school. Boskovic metaphorically described the "angry clouds of red" he sees hanging over the students in the hallways and teachers in their classrooms.

"Model for us what you have been making the basis of our entire education," he told the board of the PreK-12 school, which is based on democratic and constructivist principles. This means that students are actively involved in their education, including voting on choices. "If you continue the path you have been on, there will likely be no Trillium in a few years."

See previous coverage: Trillium charter school roils in turmoil

What many described as a family has been falling apart in recent years. Staff have left in droves, K-8 students are failing, budget shortfalls abound, but perhaps most concerning to many is that the school is unsafe.

"There are zero consequences for violent repeat behavior year after year," said K-1 teacher Erika Almskaar, describing a school where students regularly destroy school property or act aggressively. "I have students who are afraid to go to the bathroom, which I believe to be a fundamental human right."

The democratic school's board is slowly making changes — too slow for some. Promises to add teachers and students to the board — whose members ironically are not elected but appointed — have not yet been fulfilled. Advertisements have yet to go out for a permanent executive director even though the last one left last summer.

Patrick Magee-Jenks, a high school social studies teacher and president of the Trillium teachers union local, said the teachers feel unsupported in their attempts at discipline and totally shut out of the school's governance.

Magee-Jenks said a teacher survey repeatedly revealed "a sense of chaos," and "never knowing which policies are being followed." He clashed with the board over several policy issues, such as open meetings law, student discipline procedures and board composition.

Interim Executive Director Patrice Mays said she is making progress on identifying problems with the curriculum, reaching agreements with the union, hiring a few positions and encouraging parents to sign up for committees.

"The goal is to get some momentum and some movement happening in this school," Mays said.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Patrice Mays, interim executive director for Trillium Charter School, speaks during a recent school board meeting.

Some fifth graders can't read

Trillium's alternative education philosophy draws a lot of families looking outside of the mainstream, as well as children with disabilities and behavioral needs. According to state figures, 15 percent of the public charter school's student body is identified as having a disability. That's just slightly higher than a typical school.

More to the point is how Trillium teaches students that their opinions matter and encourages them to form their own education in democratic debates and decisions.

The school is working very well for older children — the high school students out-perform district peers on their annual assessment. But K-8 is struggling; one student said her fifth-grade brother and his classmates can't read. Many attributed poor performance to the lack of discipine and consistency in the lower grades.

"We are permissive. We're a permissive community," longtime parent Paola Lamorticella said to the board. "You're teaching this permissiveness by example. Nobody seems to be taking responsibility."

Kellie Shaw, the board chair and also a longtime parent, defended the all-volunteer board. She said the teachers needed to take the opportunities for training, such as for a conflict resolution technique called restorative justice.

"The last administration made it available to teachers that they had restorative justice training, equity training. I know the funds were made available to them," Shaw said, adding that she was deeply hurt by the divisions in the once close-knit school. "Can somebody meet us halfway?"

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Former and current students at Trillium Charter School make their presence know at a recent school board meeting.

The race card

While few would speak openly about it in a public forum like the one on Wednesday, numerous sources say racial issues play a role in the fractures at Trillium. The new interim executive director and two board members are African-American. Many white staffers, parents and students will say privately that they feel the race card is played too much. The school's student body is 74 percent white and just 4 percent black, with the rest other people of color.

Joe Bryan, a former preschool administrator and current Trillium parent, said he felt like racism was a key part of the discussion. He urged the school community to become more involved in fixing the school's problems, saying Interim Executive Director Mays had been "thrown under the bus … for a situation that we're all culpable for."

"The school system is what's failing," said Bryan, who is white. "It's not our board. It's the United States of America."

Some argued that the school's idealized social justice model simply isn't the right fit for some students, urging a crime and punishment approach for the most disruptive students.

"Even though we are in a social justice system, we still mean business. ...If you're not with the team, get out," said high schooler Alex Kusek at the meeting. "If you're not going to respect your teachers, if the students are literally threatening, hurting (other people), I don't feel that those students should have the right to a social justice thing."

Kusek finished his speech by advocating for "retributive," "prison-style" justice for certain students, garnering loud applause from the crowd.

The board did not respond.

Correction (1/12/18): the person speaking at the end of the above video is a teacher — Trillium middle school science teacher and Oregon School Employees Association chapter 161 Vice President Eric Bryant.

Documents reveal history of trouble at Trillium Charter School

Parents, staff and students at Trillium Charter School have complained loudly about their new Interim Executive Director Patrice Mays, but documents from Portland Public Schools reveal that the school has been in serious trouble for at least a few years.

"Serious compliance issues" led the district to write an addendum to the 2014-15 plan for Trillium that lists major problems with teacher qualifications, minimum instructional hour requirements and a lack of response from the then-executive director of the North Portland charter school, Kieran Connolly.

"In general, we have serious concerns about the leadership at Trillium," reads the unsigned and undated report from the district's charter school office. "Over the past several years, the ED (executive director) has become less communicative with our office, and at times appears unaware of fundamental regulations governing charter schools, such as hiring requirements, instructional hours requirements and reporting requirements."

PPS charter schools are currently overseen by Program Director Tara O'Neil, who has been in that position since August 2016, according to LinkedIn.

In addition, Connolly appeared to have made false statements to the district regulator about resolving the issues when an October 2015 site visit made clear that they had not been resolved. "This has resulted in a consistent pattern of non-compliance and unreliable communication," reads the report.

Some of the issues from the 2015-16 school year identified in the report:

  • An unidentified teacher was teaching Spanish in 2014-15 despite not being licensed, qualified or high-caliber enough to teach. Trillium staff sources say this teacher was Patrice Mays, now the interim executive director. PPS required Trillium to remove the teacher, but she was still the Spanish teacher for 2015-16 until the district forced action to enroll students in an online course.
  • Three other teachers were identified as not qualified at the time of their employment to teach the subjects they were assigned to: Jessica Barnett in economics, Jacob Cline in physical education, and Sara McWilliams in drama. Cline and Barnett's qualifications were resolved by the time of the addendum.
  • Many high school students, and the majority of seniors, were scheduled for less instructional time than the state requires. As few as 36 percent of seniors were scheduled for the required 966 instructional hours.
  • In 2015-16, the executive director, who has since left, greatly improved communication with the district, according to that year's report.

    By the 2016-17 draft report, finished last fall, many of the operational requirements had been met, except for an evaluation by the charter school board of the departed executive director.

    A board member's perspective

    Portland Public Schools board member Paul Anthony leads the district's charter schools committee. He says Trillium is not up for renewal or extension this year so the district is not expected to take any action on it.

    "It does not look like the school board ... will have any decision to make about that this year," Anthony said. "We're in a difficult position," he continued, arguing that the district has the responsiblity but not the authority to manage charter schools. "There is not a whole lot of assistance that we can actually give a charter. If they want to talk, we can give advice."

    Anthony said charters require a lot of community support.

    "It takes so much personal energy," he said. "At what point can the community not sustain that?"

    Please note: Trillium Charter School is a separate entity from Trillium Family Services, which operates a therapeutic school in Southeast Portland called Four Corners.

    Shasta Kearns Moore
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