Opinion: A historic opportunity to invest in principals – and boost equity – in Portland’s schools
Davis is principal at da Vinci Arts Middle School and is a member of the Portland Public Schools team helping implement an equity-centered principal pipeline.
There’s nobody more important to a student than their teacher – but the principal of their school is a close second.
In fact, research bears this out. School leaders set the tone for a student’s experience – from the sense of calm and safety, the focus of teachers and staff on the children and the accountability to the school community.
Perhaps just as important, the principal serves as a living, breathing example of a leader. So, it’s vital that we have great principals in charge of our schools – and principals who understand how to help every child reach their potential. Principals have an opportunity to have a major impact – and the opportunity to set a mighty example.
That’s why I’m proud to be a principal at Portland Public Schools – and why Portland is fortunate to be one of eight school districts across the country to receive an $8.2 million, five-year grant to transform the preparation, selection and ongoing support of principals. The funding comes from the Wallace Foundation, which works with grantees to solve social problems, including inequities in education. This grant gives Portland a historic opportunity to infuse racial equity in our principal recruitment and coaching processes.
Our success in creating an equity-centered school system depends on empowering those with the commitment and leadership skills to meet the moment. Over the next five years, PPS anticipates the hiring of about 120 principals and 85 assistant principals. It’s in all our best interests that our schools have consistent, skilled leadership.
As a Portland native, I have watched educational equity initiatives come and go with new superintendents, principals and teachers, and with each new graduating class. But this time feels different because it is different – because of the approach and investment provided by the Wallace grant. This initiative is accelerating our efforts to identify, recruit, prepare and retain racial equity-driven leaders, while addressing our struggles to attract and retain administrators of color – for all of our schools.
A key part of our grant is aimed at building a broad, community-wide focus on equity. PPS is partnering with Lewis and Clark College and Portland State University to create cohorts of rising school administrators – identifying high-potential candidates as early as high school.
We’re also working with community-based organizations; the Oregon Educator Advancement Council; and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, the state entity that licenses all Oregon educators, to explore alternative pathways to leadership outside traditional licensure programs run by colleges and universities. This follows the Legislature’s recent updates to teacher licensure to address educator workforce shortages.
This work should matter to you whether you’re a parent, a business owner or a taxpayer who reaps the immediate and long-term benefits of a community where all residents have equitable access to education – no matter their racial background or neighborhood.
This work should also matter to you if you’re concerned with closing the equity gaps in our city and our schools.
An investigation this year in The Oregonian/OregonLive highlighted that Black fourth-graders, on average, were barely reading at a third-grade level, with the gap increasing over time: Black eighth-graders in PPS on average, read at about the level they should be in the fall of sixth grade.
We also need to address high turnover in the principal’s office. Nationally, a third of principals leave within two years. Turnover is even higher at schools with higher concentrations of students of color and low-income families, a troubling trend we’ve also seen in Portland.
My colleagues are aware of these problems and are already addressing them by creating new programs to support our current leaders. For instance, PPS piloted a new leader development program to support principals with one-on-one coaching and workshops. The district also plans to create a new system that will help track leaders’ strengths and needs, flagging areas that require support.
More steps are needed. But as someone who’s been entrusted with ensuring that all our students excel, I’m excited to see plans in motion so future graduates can reach their full potential.
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