Verenice Gutierrez picks up on the subtle language of racism every day.
Take the peanut butter sandwich, a seemingly innocent example a teacher used in a lesson last school year.
“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” says Gutierrez, principal at Harvey Scott K-8 School, a diverse school of 500 students in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood.
“Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”
Guitierrez, along with all of Portland Public Schools’ principals, will start the new school year off this week by drilling in on the language of “Courageous Conversations,” the district-wide equity training being implemented in every building in phases during the past few years.
Through intensive staff trainings, frequent staff meetings, classroom observations and other initiatives, the premise is that if educators can understand their own “white privilege,” then they can change their teaching practices to boost minority students’ performance.
Last Wednesday, the first day of the school year for staff, for example, the first item of business for teachers at Scott School was to have a Courageous Conversation — to examine a news article and discuss the “white privilege” it conveys.
Most of the staff are on board, but there is some opposition to a drum class being offered to middle school boys of color at Scott School.
Fifty percent of the students at Scott are Hispanic; another 15 percent are black and 9 percent are Asian. Eighty-five percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Chuck Barber, who also offers boys’ drum corps at Vernon and Faubion schools in Northeast Portland, approached Gutierrez last year to start up a lunch-time drum class for black and Latino boys once a week. This year, it’ll expand to two classes a week, to accommodate new boys as well as those with experience.
At least one parent has a problem with the the class, saying it amounts to “blatant discrimination and equity of women, Asians, whites and Native Americans.”
“This ‘club’ was approved by the administration, and any girls who complained were brushed off and it was not addressed,” the parent wrote anonymously.
Gutierrez denies that any students were turned away from the drum corps, and vehemently rejects any suggestion that it is discrimination to offer a club catering to minority boys.
“When white people do it, it is not a problem, but if it’s for kids of color, then it’s a problem?” says Gutierrez, 40, an El Paso, Texas, native whose parents were Mexican immigrants. “Break it down for me. That’s your white privilege, and your whiteness.”
Like many if not all of PPS’ leaders, Gutierrez has gone through California-based consultant Glenn Singleton’s “Coaching for Educational Equity,” a weeklong seminar on race and how it affects life; she’s also become an “affiliate,” certified to teach the equity curriculum; and she serves on the district’s administrative committee to address systematic racism, a group that meets every other week.
“Our focus school and our Superintendent’s mandate that we improve education for students of color, particularly Black and Brown boys, will provide us with many opportunities to use the protocols of Courageous Conversations in data teams, team meetings, staff meetings, and conversations amongst one another,” Guitierrez’ letter to staff reads.
Equity training aside, Scott School must teach the same number of students with fewer teachers and resources. Down five full-time positions this year, including two reading specialists, Gutierrez is trying desperately do more with less.
“My first year as principal, I looked at the data and found that the eighth-graders that year, a third of them were going to Madison (High School) at about a third-grade level,” she told the Tribune. “I said, ‘This is completely unacceptable.’ “
That led to her adopting what she calls the school’s “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”: that every student will make two years’ growth in one year’s time in reading, writing and math.
Last year, teachers set out to tackle that goal, meeting in teams to look at data and coming up with creative ways to target their instruction.
“We want to teach them to be critical thinkers,” Gutierrez says.
The results, by the end of the year, were promising, she says. The biggest achievement was among the kindergarteners: All but three of the 63 students met their benchmarks at the end of the year.
Among the other grades, there was “tremendous growth in pockets,” she says. “Now we need to make it happen school wide.”
Despite that year of work, Oregon’s Department of Education just last month identified Scott as a “focus school,” one that performs among the state’s lowest 15 percent.
Five other PPS schools are state-designated focus schools as well: Jefferson High; CÃ©sar ChÃ¡vez K-8; and Rigler, Whitman and Woodmere elementary schools.
The designation comes with $5,000 per school and a state-appointed coach who’ll work with each school team on an improvement plan.
Another six PPS schools, which ranked among the state’s lowest 5 percent, are newly designated as “priority” schools: Madison and Roosevelt High; Ockley Green K-8; and King, Rosa Parks and Woodlawn elementary schools.
“I’m excited by the fact that we’re designated a focus school by the state,” Gutierrez says. “It’s an added layer of accountability.”
She’s so motivated to see growth that she’s adopted a new school vision: to be an “academic beacon” for Northeast Portland, where students achieve at high academic levels in two languages.
“This isn’t for the weak,” she says. “We have less resources. We can’t impact that. I want to walk away from Scott when my tenure is done and be able to say that school is achieving just as well as Alameda or Sabin, or any other school in the city. Why not?”