Saturday, June 19, 2010

Harris, Dudley, conversions, closure—sad constants at Jefferson HS

This week's swirl of decisions, meetings, protests, and editorials about Jefferson High School—my neighborhood school—reminded me of a piece I wrote for the St. Johns Sentinel three years ago. Now with yet another Jeff principal removed from her office—not to mention an imminent overhaul of the school's program, if not outright closure—I found these musings (slightly edited here) still heartbreakingly relevant. And probably moot, at this point.

Breakin’ up is hard to do

My children are now grown and settled into marriages. Yet I remember their dating years, when their mother and I always, foolishly, became friends with our children’s serious romantic interests. Foolish, because there was nothing but loss when our sons and daughters broke up with said interests. They lost lovers, we lost friends. Meals had been shared with these people who were so central to our children’s lives and affections.  Gifts had been exchanged. (I have a book on Chinese medicine given to us one Christmas by a young woman who seriously dated and eventually jilted my son. I still appreciate the book as well as the girl’s thoughtfulness, though I don’t say this to my son. Or to his wife.)

I felt something like this last month when principal Leon Dudley was removed (or removed himself) from the principalship of Jefferson High School. (Okay, the district says it’s paid leave through June. Yet I can’t imagine he will return to any school in this district.) Unlike many in the Jefferson community, I hold no animus toward him. Yet even if I hadn’t particularly cared for the personality of this boyfriend that the district brought home to us in North Portland, he was here, there was a relationship whether I liked it or not, I didn’t know how long it was going to last—but the way I saw it, you at least get to know the individual and try to support the couple where you can.

Now that he’s gone, there are more grimaces than tears. It got just plain ugly toward the end, by all accounts. Rudenesses and hurt feelings on all sides—students, teachers, Dudley, district. In the wake of it all, I’m left with a puzzler:

With 10 principals in as many years at Jefferson (including interim principals), has anyone considered that just maybe it's not the leadership that's the problem? Could the district's hiring record for Jefferson’s administrative leadership be that consistently bad? All five school superintendents during the last decade utterly incompetent when it came to tapping a principal for Jefferson? Why does the principal’s office inside Jefferson have a revolving door when other high schools in our district have at least a tad more stability (and some, a lot more) in their administrative offices?

I can’t help but think that the answer lies not in goofball conspiracy theories (The board wants Jefferson to fail so they can unload it to PCC across the street) but rather in a hairball of distasteful realities: Jefferson has little if any functional parent constituency to organize and advocate for the school in meaningful and persuasive ways. With the smallest high school enrollment in the district, yet with one of the highest teacher-to-student ratios, still the academic performance levels at Jefferson are generally dismal. And on a bad day, nostalgia seems like the only reason to keep the school open and operating.

Of course, there are qualifiers galore. Parents with the savvy and the time to vigorously advocate for their school are typically in the more educated and higher income demographic. This is not Jefferson’s demographic. (Or hasn’t been. The neighborhood is changing, however.) There have been curricular regimes in the last five or so years that were actually producing some of the highest rates of academic improvement in the district. And what can you expect when nearly a third of Jefferson’s students are classified as special ed students? Or when too many teachers are forced to spend an inexcusable proportion of class time simply trying to keep classroom order instead of actually teaching students?

If Jefferson High School is to recover from the slow burn that has been gradually consuming faculty morale, driving neighborhood students to other schools, and singeing the resumes of principals, it may be with the reasonable assumption that all parties want the best for Jefferson and its students—that principal (whoever it is) and superintendent and school board and teachers and parents and neighbors and activists and all start by assuming that we may see different roads to a thriving campus, but it’s still a thriving campus that we all want.

In any case, the school district’s break-up with Dudley after only eight months makes us parental types in the neighborhood feel a tad guarded about supporting The Next Principal. How much relational energy should we invest in her? How long will TNP be around? For our students’ sakes, for the sake of eventual stability at Jefferson, everyone—from students to superintendent—could stand acknowledging the social and operational complexities, then starting to repair its share of problems that continue to stymie Jefferson.