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Parents, teachers petition to oust Beach School principal

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Parents, teachers and others have signed an online petition asking that Portland Public Schools remove the Beach School principal.Parents at a North Portland school have taken the unusual step of petitioning for their principal’s ouster.

Their situation — frustration that can't be resolved by any of the official channels within Portland Public Schools — is a recurring theme at several district schools.

So far, 125 teachers, parents and students at Beach School have signed a petition on http://www.moveon.org — a website that allows anyone to create a petition for any cause.

The principal, Rebecca Torres, is in her first year at Beach; she previously was an assistant principal at Sellwood Middle School. She did not return a request for comment on Tuesday from the Tribune.

David Heslam, a parent of three students at Beach who posted the petition, didn’t mince words with his petition statement. He said he’s “witnessed significant deterioration in the school morale and serious doubts arise about the schools ability to deliver quality education under her watch.”

Parents and teachers say they've been frustrated by a series of recent decisions Torres has made about school programs.

Teachers recently took a formal survey to assess the principal's performance, returning mostly critical feedback.

“Our hope is that we can give somebody feedback so they can get better,” Gwen Sullivan, Portland Association of Teachers president, told the Tribune on Tuesday. “By the time you get to a climate survey, things have to be pretty bad, and they have exhausted all ways of trying to work things out.”

PPS often runs into schools that have similar waves of dissent with their principals, but most stay bubbled under the surface because teachers are afraid of losing their jobs and parents don’t necessarily want to draw negative attention to their school.

A petition against a principal is almost unheard of.

PPS’ process to look into complaints against principals involves going first to their immediate supervisor.

Torres’ supervisor, Portland Public Schools Regional Administrator Antonio Lopez, said it’s his job to create a dialogue between all parties, to bridge the misunderstandings and repair relationships with the school community. He says that is what he's been trying to do at Beach.

“Everyone has good intentions,” says Lopez, who oversees a total of 21 schools in the Jefferson and Franklin clusters. “My goal is how can we bring people together. How can we support the parents, teachers, students, administrators? This is not about finding a villian. It’s about how we can work together to be better collectively.”

Sources of angst

Beach is a popular school of 613 students in the Overlook neighborhood, which has been steadily growing and gentrifying. It’s also a preK-8 Spanish immersion school, open to families districtwide. More than half of its students are of color: a third are Hispanic and another 15 percent are black.

The school’s socioeconomics have been rising: 58 percent are eligible for free- or reduced price lunch, which means this fall it no longer qualifies for federal Title 1 funding.

Some Title 1 funded programs, such as Playworks (a recess coach who leads activities), will suddenly dry up unless other funds are found.

Aaron Smirl, parent of a second grader at Beach, says he stepped down as PTA president a month before the school year ended due to his frustrations with the school leadership.

He said he and two other parents brought their concerns to Lopez, but “we kept getting accused of being a majority white organization that doesn’t speak for the whole population. We found out that’s not the case.”

He said he took pains to distribute a PTA survey to as much of the parent population as he could reach, over a two-week period. He received 350 responses.

The survey asked parents to rank school programs, questions about PTA activities, and open-ended questions about their concerns and what they liked.

Twenty percent of the responses were critical of the principal in open-ended questions, Smirl says.

Problems had begun to arise when Torres said she would discontinue a beloved free Suzuki violin program for students. The teacher was not certified, so there were compliance issues. But parents say they feel Torres values academics over enrichment.

Another source of angst was a reading program called Jumpstart, offered to a group of identified second-graders in the summer two weeks before school starts.

The program was funded by a grant in its first year and after the grant ended the PTA voted to fund it with $14,000 for this fall. However Torres cut the program, saying it qualified as summer school and therefore she was required to post the teaching positions districtwide. According to Smirl, she told parents she didn’t want to do the paperwork.

Smirl says the school shouldn’t lose out because of technicalities. “It’s her job to help find solutions, because previous administrators have been able to do this,” he says. "Our last principal was very bureaucratically savvy, a personable community-building person who knew about issues and built a bunch of stuff at our school with the willing participation of parents."

After Smirl stepped down from the PTA, Heslam and other parents took over with their petition.

Inviting dialogue

To Smirl, the issues at Beach reflect a system-wide problem that warrants a system-wide remedy.

“The principalship is kind of a protected spot in PPS,” he says. “There’s no process for evaluation of the principal by anyone other than regional administrator or direct boss. … There should be a direct line from superintendent to the principal that goes beyond the regional administrator. It becomes very unclear if you go to HR, the Office of Teaching and Learning, the chief academic officer or any other of these siloed departments down there. Finger pointing goes on all over the place, and you get dismissed.”

Lopez said it’s often difficult to follow up on complaints against principals when they are general, like “poor communication skills.”

He looks for specifics, and invites dialogue from all parties.

“We’re more than ready to sit down with anybody and build that relationship again,” he says. “If you have an opportunity to have a conversation with the principal and listen to her perspective, I think that it will be a good thing.”