Racism Goes to School


Poster of racist misinformation encouraging white nationalism

Posted in my neighborhood

In the time since I began to write this post, racism has been visible in Portland in a number of ways, one horrific enough to make national news. But there have been local incidents too. For example, at the middle school a few blocks away, an 8th grader waiting at a bus stop was harassed with racial slurs. This poster appeared not too far away, sparking neighborhood outrage and a number of direct actions including by the neighborhood association.

We have much work to do here. This post is a look at some of the issues and responses in the schools.

I. A Board of Education Meeting

I went to my first Portland Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education meeting several weeks ago.

It’s a fascinating way to get a sense of some of the issues in a school district. I wasn’t disappointed. A large group of teachers in matching t-shirts, silently holding up signs as their union contract negotiator informed the Board that she’d be filing charges against the Board for breaches in agreed upon bargaining practices. (The Board negotiator didn’t even show up to the bargaining session scheduled for two days later, so you can see how effective the union tactic was.) The Board reviewed the budget, which the Superintendent called an exercise in making difficult choices. They had been able to restore some of the teaching positions that had been originally excessed, which they felt good about. Their relief at being done with the process was palpable.

The real eye opener for me came with the celebration of the high school valedictorians. Unlike in schools where there is one valedictorian elected by teachers or students, valedictorians in PPS are determined by GPA. Therefore, a school can have multiple valedictorians. As high school after high school was announced and students stepped forward to be acknowledged, a couple of things were crystal clear. One, after watching the students stream in front of the board, you would think you were in a district with no students of color. Oh, there were several students of Indian descent, and maybe some with Spanish inflected names. There was one African American student. Two, the number of valedictorians per school grew progressively smaller as the high schools in the poorer sections of the city were announced. Were the schools intentionally announced in order from the largest number of valedictorians to the smallest? They might want to rethink that next year.


II. Visit to an Alternative SchoolScreen shot of Open School webpage

This week, I visited a private alternative school. The student population is kids who are at risk of not graduating, specifically, kids from the poorest parts of the city. Many are young people of color. They live in neighborhoods where gun violence is a fact of life; the school itself is located in a neighborhood with one of the highest poverty rates in the county. The school staff is fiercely dedicated to getting these kids educated and graduated.

The school’s model is simple: rigorous academics + equity education + advocacy = impact. Right now, the school serves students in grades 7- 9. The day I visited, construction on the new building was in full swing. (News coverage of that ground-breaking event includedTV, public radio, and newspaper.) Even the governor was involved. And, in 2015, executive director Andrew Mason received the Portland Monthly [Magazine] “Extraordinary Executive Director” at its 2015 Light a Fire awards ceremony. In an interview about the award, Mason said,

I think our city needs our program, populated by low-income kids, kids of color, where they’re going to college. We really need the example saying, “It’s possible.” I would be a fool to claim victory at this point, but I am not a fool to say that we’ve gotta try.”


09_Extraordinary Executive Director from Portland Monthly Magazine on Vimeo.

In 2015, 100 percent of Open School’s class of 2015 exceeded the state’s new diploma standards. Stories abound of middle schoolers with second grade reading levels who caught up in a year. There’s no secret formula except hard work; although school ends in Portland on June 15, Open School will reopen soon after and kids who don’t meet the literacy benchmarks will be back. Mason told me the principal is as aware of the numbers as he is of each kid who attends.

And that is precisely why Open School works, says Mason.

“…the best way to keep them in school is to create a community with them and embrace them all the way through, seventh grade to graduation.” 

III. The Conference on English Education: (Com)Passionate Education

The biennial CEE conference is hands down my favorite educational conference. It’s small and its specific focus– preparing folks to become teachers of English– means we’re all talking the same language. And the conference is designed for talking, perhaps this year more than ever, where the daily plenary was always followed by multiple break-out sessions, each conversation facilitated by a one or two scholars.

This year’s conference in Columbus, OH fed my growing hunger to be a better ally to black, brown, and othered peoples. I can’t convey all of what I took away with me here, but I want to share some of the comments from the opening panel that hit me, that I’m still thinking about.

From the opening panel, A Conversation Among Friends, with Drs. Noah Asher Golden, Jenell Igeleke Penn, Tonya Perry, and Tim San Pedro.

  • Compassion is deeply fraught. It starts in the ways we locate ourselves– are we starting from hurt and pain or from a place of hope and invitation?
  • What do we expect compassion to do for our students? Importantly, it starts with listening, then doing with and not for. Compassion happens within rich relationships with students and their families, their communities.
  • In order to engage a humanizing pedagogy, we must practice a radical listening with the students and preservice teachers we work with.
  • We need to ask, where is change needed and how can I partner with people who are trying to make these changes?
  • What stories are being told, by you and by other people? Whose stories are they?
  • We need to seek what kids do well that we don’t know they can do. Then we need to bring that into the English classroom and make it so that it’s transformative of and in students’ lives.
  • We need to give kids skills so that they can make their lives work better. Each skill must be tied to a survival skill to build agency and community.
  • Our work is to create an more just system. It is important to transcend differences in order to make English Education a space where we can do the work of creating spaces for transformation.

I have images of slides from other plenary sessions that I’ll share in future posts.


Slice of Life is the weekly Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. Come write along with us!










7 responses to “Racism Goes to School”

  1. I’m a PPS graduate from way back before Measure 5 passed. The news has been sickening lately. It’s interesting to me that growing up, the suburbs were lily-white, but now living on the cusp of Beaverton and Hillsboro, my kids go to a far more racially and linguistically diverse school than anything I ever experienced living in the city. That valedictorian thing is disheartening, to say the least. Regarding the charter-ish school–I’m always for helping kids succeed, but I also really think it’s important to look at systemic change, not isolated programs. What is this program doing that ALL schools could be doing to help kids succeed?

    Really interesting post. Lots to think about. Thanks.

    • Karen says:

      Your question is so complex. I think what Open School works to do is to change the system, particularly some of the elements that are most easily overlooked. As a small example, there’s a concerted effort to have teachers, counselors, and administrators who look like the students they work with. Also, I think they work hard to address issues of race and equity head-on, among the staff and with kids as well.

      But your question presumes that all schools are designed to meet the needs of all kids. In cities across the country, we see again and again that poor kids, who also typically happen to be kids of color (gee, go figure), don’t have the same resources, quality of teachers, facilities as their white counterparts. Life circumstances of poor kids are complex and difficult, marked by hunger, violence, lack of intellectual stimulation and narrow views of what’s possible in their lives. Look at graduation and drop out rates across any urban school district. I bet you can tell where the “good” (i.e., white, middle & upper middle class) neighborhoods are just by these numbers. I don’t mean to imply that these numbers are indicators of “success,” but they offer some interesting starting points for discussion. And then there’s the issue of whose ideas of success are we using, and what priorities and values are these based on….

  2. As you write: “We have work to do here.” I like how your slice touches on so many different (but often connected) facets of that work.

  3. Mary Ann Reilly says:

    I feel like I am learning a lot about Portland these last few weeks and so much of it reminds me of here. Val. are selected by GPA here as well and I imagine if we were to look at race and gender we would find some similar patterns. Racism, privilege remain steady. We must do better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.