Revolving door at the principal’s office: constant change and one school community’s response
At Rigler Elementary School in Northeast Portland, it’s the end of the school year. With that comes the end of a year with another principal who won’t be there for the first day of school in the fall.
This time, it’s interim principal Keyla Santiago, who came to Rigler eight months ago, after serving as the assistant principal for nearby Scott Elementary.
For Rigler parent Noelle Studer-Spevak, this situation isn’t new. She’s seen many principals leave, triggering a familiar process to find the next school leader. A meeting is called and the district gives a presentation. The outgoing principal shares a message. Studer-Spevak said she even went to a presentation up the road at Scott and saw the same “canned presentation.”
“It’s the same thing every year,” Studer-Spevak said. “The only thing that’s different this time is that there’s COVID.”
Being a school principal in 2021 has been a grueling job. Between a pandemic shutting down schools in March 2020, to a rapid shift toward schools reopening, there’s a lot to manage. In Portland, the job of principal has been especially tough, with the brunt of implementing efforts like hybrid learning largely left up to individual schools, where the number and needs of students returning in-person can vary widely.
But for the staff and students at Rigler, losing a principal is a years-long issue, documented by a 2019 audit from the Oregon Secretary of State, that remains to be solved. The audit noted that Portland Public Schools has long struggled to keep principals, especially at schools like Rigler.
Parents and staff say PPS hasn’t taken the steps necessary to stabilize leadership at the school, leaving the school community to serve a historically underserved student population with inconsistent support and shifting priorities.
When the Secretary of State’s audit devoted a whole page to Rigler Elementary, Studer-Spevak was hopeful.
“We were very excited to talk with them,” she said, recalling a meeting between parents and the auditor team.
The 2019 audit was a longtime goal of late Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, as a way to hold accountable Oregon’s largest school district and the state Department of Education. The 98-page audit, pointedly titled “ODE and PPS Must Do More to Monitor Spending and Address Systemic Obstacles to Student Performance, Particularly at Struggling Schools,” offered 26 recommendations for both the state and the district.
Among those recommendations, the Secretary of State’s office called on the district to “prioritize development and stability of effective principals by providing incentives and additional support, particularly at high-poverty schools.”
Rigler is one of 19 Title 1 elementary schools in PPS, schools serving children in families with high rates of mobility or poverty.
“The lack of sustained focus at PPS and statewide has the most detrimental effect on schools serving high numbers of African American, Latino, and economically disadvantaged students,” according to one of the audit’s findings.
“Initially I was very excited that someone was taking an interest in us, because to me, education is such a basic right, and our kids were not getting it,” Studer-Spevak said.
At the time of the audit, Rigler had had four different principals in five years. PPS administrators had created a tool to measure “change saturation,” which included data on staff turnover, and the number of programs at the school. The tool showed Rigler and other Title 1 schools with the most “change saturation.”
Two years later, the pattern hasn’t changed: Rigler has now had six principals in eight years. But the “saturation” tool, provided to OPB by PPS in a records request, has not been updated since 2016, meaning it was already out of date by the publication of the audit. In the meantime, Rigler’s academic progress appears stalled, with the elementary school registering below average in both reading and math, according to its most recent state report card from the 2018-2019 school year.
But constant principal changes are not just happening at Rigler. According to PPS data, seven other Portland elementary schools have had at least five different principals in the last eight years. Among high-poverty Title I schools, Southeast Portland’s Lent has had six principals in the last eight years, like Rigler, while Cesar Chavez and Scott, have had five. Atkinson, Laurelhurst, and Skyline schools have also changed principals five times since 2013. Richmond has changed principals six times in that eight-year span.
While the problem is most acute at those eight schools, data from the Oregon Department of Education’s most recent school report cards show more than half the district’s schools — 41 of 81 PPS schools — haven’t had the same principal for the last three years. Principals leave for lots of reasons, including retirement or a promotion, but the trend is important enough that the state collects data on turnover as one of its school metrics.
Portland school officials say turnover is bound to happen.
“In any urban school district, you’re going to have turnover, particularly at high-poverty schools, because those are challenging assignments,” said PPS Chief of Schools Shawn Bird.
And Bird said principals who succeed in “challenging assignments” may be more likely to get attractive job offers.
“Sometimes they’re recruited at other places, those turnaround school principals — that is a high demand skill, so some people want to go to larger schools, want to experience other opportunities in their career,” Bird said.
But those administrative changes have an impact on schools, no matter the reason for leaving.
Both longtime and newer parents feel Rigler is a special school: a Spanish immersion program serving kindergarten through fifth grade students in Portland’s rapidly-changing Cully neighborhood.
Lailah Hamblin has been a Rigler parent since 2014. Like many parents, Hamblin chose Rigler for the diverse community, and so her son could learn Spanish. Now he’s in middle school, and her younger child is in third grade at Rigler. She said supporting the social and emotional needs of students and navigating conflicts with teachers has been difficult through the constant churn of principals.
“I felt like every year, it was like reinventing the wheel, having to meet with each principal and explain to them the damage that has been caused,” Hamblin said.
“I always say that it can be really exhausting to be a Rigler parent.”
This spring, district administrators sent an email to the school community. It’s an email several parents are sick of seeing — the one asking for desired qualities in a school administrator. At one community meeting, parents recalled a district official saying the district was looking for a “unicorn” to spearhead Rigler.
“Honestly, I just deleted it,” Hamblin said of the email. “I’m too tired. What we need is a principal who will stick around because they feel supported, and they’re given the tools they need.”
From Rigler, Hamblin’s oldest moved on to Beaumont Middle School. The Northeast Portland middle school brings in students from Rigler and nearby Alameda. Hamblin says her son struggled academically at Rigler, and that has continued into sixth grade. But she said he has noticed something about his classmates.
“He seems rather in awe of how smart these kids are, or how bright they are, or how great their science experiments look ... . He’s aware of it, and he’s barely 12 years old,” Hamblin said, referring to students from Alameda, where leadership has been more stable and resources, more plentiful.
“That saddens me because Rigler students are just as smart as any of those kids, but they haven’t been prepared well for middle school.”
Tired and frustrated, Hamblin and Studer-Spevak have moved on from their roles as parent leaders. At the same time, a new crop of parents is starting at Rigler, and continuing the push for change.
Magalí Rabasa lives half a block outside of the school border, but she petitioned to have her daughter attend Rigler instead of nearby Vernon. She’s now in second grade.
“A school community that is all Spanish speaking, as well as other languages, and just seeing the really incredible commitment of teachers and their creativity,” Rabasa said. “The teachers for me are the community of Rigler.”
One example of that is La Colectiva de la Comida, a group of teachers and families that came together at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to make sure Rigler families had the food and resources they needed with weekly distributions and other efforts. As the group continues its second year, under a new principal, it’s continuing collaborations with local businesses and individuals and offering opportunities for members of the community to share skills with each other.
“People are showing up for each other,” said Rigler teacher Stephen Gunvalson.
But the resilience of a school without a leader can only go so far, said Jessie Marquez, a parent of a first-grader.
“Retaining a principal, having strong leadership, just seems like that is a key ingredient in a school’s success and in a child’s success,” Marquez said. “I don’t know how we can give these students the opportunities that they need unless we resolve that issue.”
Parents contend that the same community that’s supported the school through the many principal changes are also key to finding and keeping a leader.
Parent Alma Mora has been part of the Rigler community for 13 years. She’s frustrated with the district.
Mora spoke in Spanish, with Rabasa interpreting.
“Our kids are the reason why all of this exists, our kids are the reason why the district exists, why their jobs exist, and they don’t listen to us,” Mora said. “They ignore us. Our voice, and our voice as Latino parents, isn’t heard, and our voice doesn’t count, and it’s ignored — and it’s like we don’t have any value in this district.”
With new principals come new ideas. And Rigler teacher Stephen Gunvalson has heard a lot of new ideas.
“It’s like watching a TV show, and it’s like the same thing, over and over again, every two years,” said Gunvalson, who has been at Rigler for six years.
These efforts don’t just come from new principals, but also the district. In the 2019-2020 school year, Rigler was classified as a school targeted for comprehensive supports and interventions (CSI). With this label comes more financial support, but also more directives on how to help students.
What showed up in the audit as a high level of “change saturation” at Rigler, shows up for teachers like Justin Godoy as stress for staff.
“You can’t ask someone to put 100% focus and effort into something you give them, and then know that within six months, that’s going to be thrown away with another thing,” said Godoy, a teacher in his third year at Rigler.
“It’s impossible for a teacher to see these things, and for them to keep implementing, with the same energy and focus knowing that in two years, there’s going to be a new admin who wants to leave their new footprint on Rigler in a different way, and then that’s going to get abandoned.”
But while leaders have changed over the years, the Rigler teaching staff in the last few years has not.
“The teachers have kind of stepped up and said, ‘well we can lead, we’re going to make sure this school continues to improve’, because we’ve had consistent teachers,” said Rigler physical education teacher Colleen Cash.
Students notice the consistent principal changes too. Gunvalson and Godoy use online quizzes in their classroom, and every year they ask students who leads the district and who leads the school.
“Kids don’t know who their principal is, kids don’t know their name,” Gunvalson said.
To fulfill the mandates that come with designations like CSI, or Title 1, teachers and parents say principals get pulled out of schools for training, keeping them away from the school they’re supposed to be leading.
“Kids want someone that they can trust … . The principals, they’re the messengers,” Gunvalson said. “They’re never in the building because of all of these required meetings.”
Looking ahead to Rigler’s future, Gunvalson and Godoy want to see a long-term plan for Rigler’s success that is specific to the school and the students it serves, that allows time for progress without moving on to the next idea.
“You need to really make it clear what does success look like based on Rigler,” Godoy said.
And most of all, they want someone who will listen and respect them.
“A principal that says yes to involving the community, opening the doors, and sharing ourselves with each other and celebrating who we are,” Gunvalson said.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the ethnicity of Magali Rabasa. OPB regrets the error.
This is part one of a two-part story on principal turnover. Part two will be published Thursday.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting