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Urban Principal Finds Hope
Author: Deborah S. Peterson
Posted: September 26, 2013

A temporary, two-week post as leader of a struggling high school turned into four, life-changing years.

Not many people would choose to serve as principal in a failing, inner-city high school and the assignment wasn't Deborah Peterson's first choice, either. She certainly didn't expect transformation. But that's just what happened during her four years at Portland's Roosevelt High School—radical change occurred for her and for Roosevelt students.

From 2005 to 2009, Peterson and her team saw community pride in the school increase as families became involved in their students' learning, and students enrolled in college-credit courses. The improvements continue today. Roosevelt's four-year graduation rate rose 16 percentage points between 2009 and 2011, and last year one-third of its graduates received $1.6 million in college scholarship offers.

Peterson now teaches the teachers who aspire to become school leaders. She is a professor in the PSU Graduate School of Education's Executive Leadership and Initial Administrator's Licensure program. Her students are future principals and vice principals, as well as school and district directors in such areas as curriculum, instruction, and family involvement. They benefit from Peterson's real-life experiences at Roosevelt High School—a slice of which she reveals here. 


EVERY LARGE urban school system has one school where the principalship is seen as a career-ending appointment. In 2005, Portland Public Schools in Oregon was having a particularly challenging time finding the right principal for one such school—Roosevelt High. As you might guess, Roosevelt wasn't an affluent school where all the kids were above average and white picket fences abounded. Student achievement scores were in the dumps, with only two of 10 students reaching grade-level benchmarks. The community was disenfranchised from the school. There was no parent-teacher association or active parent groups. The school was truly multicultural but was in a gang-impacted, isolated part of town, and 72 percent of its students lived in poverty. Incredibly, it had had 34 administrators in the previous 15 years.

Although administrative openings in Portland's high-prestige high schools regularly receive at least 75 applications, Roosevelt received only a handful for this opening, most of them from administrators applying for their first principalship. As the human resources administrator in charge of filling this position, I knew within a week of posting the opening that the search was in trouble. Our superintendent used her considerable national network to bring qualified candidates to our area. But none of the candidates accepted the opportunity.

So the superintendent decided to appoint me, a district-level administrator and former elementary school principal, to this difficult high school principalship. With the guarantee that the appointment would be temporary, I reluctantly accepted.

ON MY FIRST official day on the job, I walked into an office containing only a splintered wooden desk and a decades-old office chair with a huge depression in the worn leather seat. No bookshelves, no filing cabinets, no computer. The barren office foreshadowed what else I would find missing in this school: an instructional philosophy, master schedule, bell schedule, teaching plan, curriculum map, community engagement plan, budget, activities plan, school calendar, and hiring plans. Two of the three small schools that made up the Roosevelt campus (for which I was the overall administrator) hadn't yet hired a permanent administrator to lead them. The third one had an administrator in her second year.

Roosevelt had been labeled a "dangerous school" by the federal government. It would have been classed as "failing" had it not been converted from a comprehensive school to three small schools in the previous year. The depression in the office chair matched the depression in my heart as I realized the magnitude of the work ahead.

I looked around and murmured to myself, "Where the [expletive deleted] to start?" Books and articles for new principals advise them to do things like develop a vision, engage parents, develop professional learning communities, and manage the work day so they can spend more time in classrooms—as well as listen and be visible. Although this advice might suffice for a novice in a well-functioning school, I needed more.

I needed to sustain my spirit—and that of the students and community. I needed hope. So did my students and their families. My students needed to be cared for as human beings, not just considered as test scores or poverty index rates. Talking about sustaining the human spirit as a leadership strategy might induce eyeball-rolling in some people. But many writers—such as Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade (2009) and Diane Wood (2011)—recognize that bolstering a sense of hope and truly caring about students are key to transforming schools and communities in distress.

I knew I needed to build relationships. My introduction to the community started with an hour's drive to a summer baseball game in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. I introduced myself with vigor to a cluster of families—who turned out to be the opposing team. I finally found the right team and introduced myself just in time to have Gatorade dumped on me in celebration of the win.

Next, I met the community's Optimists, who met monthly in a local bar and started each meeting with a prayer. When a member named Sister Mary discovered I was the new principal, she gasped and assured me everybody was praying for me. I quietly wondered why. The families told me for years afterward what it meant to them that I showed up at their meeting places to find out what they wanted for their school. Parents hadn't seen an administrator come to a game in years.

During my first few months in the position, as the books advised, I listened. I built relationships. I analyzed data. But most important, I looked for places where I could find hope. I asked parents about their dreams for their school. Students shared their hopes with me. I met with teachers, secretaries, and a former campus monitor (who everybody told me was the real leader in the school before his retirement). As my staff began to trust me, I put in place a bell schedule, master schedule, yearlong plan, and school improvement plans—everything the "how to" books say novices should do.

The superintendent kept renewing my two-week-at-a-time commitment. Help and encouragement began to come my way. The superintendent and my direct supervisor gave me regular cheer-leading. Community leaders and local business owners offered perspective, support, and funding. An alumnus who led a major corporation met with me regularly to coach me on executive leadership in turbulent times.

FEW THINGS went as planned on the first day of school. In one of our small schools, the person in charge of student schedules hadn't printed the schedules and didn't show up for work, leaving us with dozens of teenagers who didn't know where to go. I took this as a chance to get to know students, hear their stories, and apologize to them for the absurdity of having no schedule.

Four days after school started, Roosevelt held its first campuswide assembly in several years. Previous administrations had canceled all-campus assemblies for fear of violence. At this gathering, we introduced students to our positive behavior support (PBS) program. Over the summer, my newly hired administrative team, my teachers, and I had looked at our school discipline data and decided that a schoolwide behavior plan was a must.

Although students weren't instantly thrilled about their increased behavioral responsibilities, they raptly watched a video we'd produced featuring music they liked and their friends, peers, and teachers. Its message was clear: We are each responsible for doing our part to ensure academic success for our school—through hard work, persistence, and compassion for one another. Students also listened to our keynote speaker, a respected community youth advocate who encouraged them to work on becoming their best possible selves despite obstacles and past unwise decisions.

That successful assembly was followed one week later by a pep rally that ended in near chaos. During the rally, a white student started a protest that some people thought was disrespectful to the black students who were speaking, although the protest was aimed at the administration. Although a few students and staff members supported the protest, most were angry at the student's attempt to derail the positive message and hope we were generating in the school. Following our PBS program, we used progressive discipline to respond to the students who were responsible.

These first weeks as Roosevelt's principal, working 14-hour days, six days a week, were a crucible for my stamina and courage. It was hard to discipline popular employees who were mismanaging our limited funds or behaving unprofessionally. It was draining to hold tough, caring conversations with a longtime employee who always took Fridays off and with high-profile partners who engaged in drive-by visits that boosted their image but weren't serving students.

I took actions that changed some dysfunctional patterns. My administrative team and I increased our classroom visits, each dropping in to see several classrooms a day. We no longer allowed community partners to select which students they wanted to tutor or mentor; we identified kids with high needs and selected a partner to support each one. And we insisted that community partners work with students before or after school instead of pulling them out of class.

Even as I saw things shift at the school, I wondered how many more months I could keep it up. But it was essential to push for deep change. I would've survived as a new high school principal if I'd followed the how-to manuals. My school would have looked like many schools, with basic school functions in place. But I wouldn't have contributed to the cultural shift that needed to happen to reduce the educational disparities in this community.

FIVE MONTHS after agreeing to serve as Roosevelt's temporary principal, I faced a turning point. I'd asked our superintendent to start the search for the real principal again. A human resources team came to school and met with family members and community leaders, who were by now engaged, to ask what they wanted in their next principal. Assuming that the superintendent wouldn't allow me to continue as the leader, parents were angry. One blurted, "Why can't we just have Deborah continue as our principal? She's exactly what we want."

The administrators went silent. The room went silent. What the administrators weren't saying was that I'd told them just days earlier to keep searching, that I wasn't sure I could do the work over the long haul.

In truth, I wasn't sure my spirit could thrive as I kept confronting the disparities between wealthy and poor schools in our district, the enormity of our education goals and the limits of our supports, and the needs of our families and the scant services available to them. I wasn't sure I could sleep knowing that our girls were used as prostitutes to fund the gangs' drug activity. Or imagining students huddled outside my office door at 6:15 a.m. because that particular heater worked well and students were homeless and cold.

On that evening in the cafeteria, I experienced what Parker Palmer (2009) calls the "tragic gap," which is what we feel as we experience a "tension between what is and what we know to be possible." In this gap, we find painful, raw truth. We can ignore this gap, pretending all is well. We can flee in desperation. Or we can hang in there.

A pregnant pause followed until one parent quietly said, "Maybe Deborah doesn't want the job." More silence. "Maybe we're asking her to do too much."

"I see her car here first thing in the morning when I drop by and after I've finished my night shift downtown," another parent noted. "Her car is here on the weekend. She's at all our games. And she's got a family with high school kids who need her. We're asking too much."

All eyes focused on me. My chest ached, my throat tensed, and my eyes reddened as I looked up at the parent as if in quiet agreement. The administrator said, "Well, let's finish talking about what you want in your next principal," and the meeting quickly ended.

I went home to a sleepless night of deep reflection. The next day, I accepted the permanent principalship—and stayed for four years. During those years, teachers, students, families, and the community came together to double Roosevelt's achievement scores, create 17 sections of advanced placement classes as well as dual-college enrollment programs, and get 50 percent of our seniors accepted at colleges.

THAT EVENING in the school cafeteria, I understood the importance of sustaining the human spirit during the many high-pressure times administrators face, especially in high-poverty schools. I was able to eventually say yes because in the months before that meeting, many people had sustained my spirit. My superintendent recognized the complexity of my school's problems; rather than judging us, she offered support. My spirit was nurtured by my supervisor, who regularly stopped by with a cup of coffee for me—not to monitor me or tell me what to do, but to see how I was.

One day, as I sat at my desk emotionally exhausted, a colleague dropped by to remind me that "the impossible might take a little while." She gave me a book with a similar title. Reading that book every night helped me remember to respond to violence in our school with compassion. It helped me forgive people—including myself—who blamed our kids and to focus on hope.

My spirit was also sustained when a student asked me why a substitute teacher had left Roosevelt after just a few weeks. I told him the teacher had said he was tired of students "testing him every minute." The student looked at me quizzically and replied, "But we do that to everybody just to be sure they really want to be here. We did it to you, and you're still here!"

Somehow the fact that this student—and the community—knew that I cared for Roosevelt's kids, and even acknowledged that he'd put me through a rough test, made me feel cared for and appreciated. That's the gift every urban principal in the trenches needs in order to keep going.

Since I left Roosevelt in 2009, students' test scores have continued to rise or hold steady, and the college-going culture has persisted. The model I began developing for wraparound student support, social capital development, and community engagement continues to thrive. 

Reprinted by permission from Educational Leadership, Vol. 70, No. 7, April 2013.

Supporting new educators 

Teachers and administrators at inner-city and low-income schools often need extra support, training, and resources—assistance that is frequently in short supply. PSU education professor Deborah Peterson was principal at one such school, Portland's Roosevelt High.

Today, Peterson shares what she learned at Roosevelt with future educators, and her colleague, Professor Amy Petti, has established a scholarship to ease the financial burden that this additional training requires. The Brakke-Daggett-Petti Family Educational Leadership Endowed Scholarship honors three generations of educators in Petti's family. It is available to graduate-level students in the Initial Administrator Licensure program. Graduates of this program work as principals, vice principals, superintendents, and as school and district leaders, many of them in underserved communities.

The PSU Graduate School of Education offers additional scholarships for students who intend to work in challenged schools. Established by community leaders who care about education, the Thrasher Scholarship is for students training to teach in areas of teacher shortages such as math, science, bilingual, or special education; the Sandy Kaplan Scholarship is for students with multicultural experience who plan to work with non-native English speakers; and the Capps Family Scholarship is for students planning to teach in inner-city schools.


Lakrea Tillis (top photo, left) gave her former principal, Deborah Peterson, a hard time at Roosevelt High School. "That's a student's job. They should explore boundaries," says Peterson, who stays in touch with former students through Facebook. Photos by Kelly James

A 2008 graduate of Roosevelt High School, Lakrea Tillis, received encouragement from Deborah Peterson to apply for the tuition free Portland Teacher Program. She was accepted and will soon transfer to Portland State from Portland Community College.