The gymnasium at Harriet Tubman Middle School features a portrait of the school's namesake.

Harriet Tubman Middle School, whose gymnasium features a portrait of the school's namesake, is one of a few PPS schools that won't have a permanent principal in place as the 2021-22 school year begins.

Rob Manning / OPB

Messages have gone out recently to the school communities at Harriet Tubman and Ockley Green middle schools. For different reasons, according to Portland Public Schools officials, neither school has a principal in place for the beginning of the year.

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Deputy Superintendent for Instruction and School Communities Shawn Bird said principal turnover is normal, but at some schools, the timing of administrative changes has left positions open as the school year gets closer.

“I would say it’s about normal, it’s just the timing is a little different,” Bird said.

There are many reasons people leave a job. From retirement, to wanting to be close to family, to seeking a new role, people leave. That includes principals.

But in Oregon’s largest district, maintaining stable leadership at schools has been a persistent problem, as documented in a 2019 audit from the Oregon Secretary of State and in recent reporting by OPB.

On top of that, Bird said there are a lot of principals moving up this year, into PPS district administration.

“We have had an unusual number of promotions this year to the central office, which is a good thing, but it also has then caused some principal searches to happen,” Bird said.

Eight PPS principals will move into roles as principal mentors or supervisors, or into jobs in the district’s teaching and learning department.

The promoted principals include Jill Sage, who left Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary in Northeast Portland to become an administrative coach and mentor to current principals. Sage served as MLK’s principal for six years but has also worked as an administrator at three other PPS schools.

“It was a really hard decision to leave Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary school because the staff, students and community are like family,” Sage said in an email to OPB.

Sage said her new role will allow her to help new school leaders feel supported.

“I hope that in this role, with my colleagues in the professional learning and leadership department, I will be able to support and retain the passionate and gifted educators who are stepping into building leadership positions,” Sage said.

She will also work on improving academic outcomes for the district’s Black and Indigenous students, whose achievement has often been below their white peers.

“I was drawn to work on deliberately training and supporting building leaders to build their practice to interrupt the system that continues to replicate these disparities,” Sage wrote.

Promotions aim to scale up school-level success

Two other principals will move into newly-created roles in the district: one focused on the district’s middle school redesign, the other focused on “learning acceleration,” a concept that has gained focus recently as a way to boost achievement among students who had difficulties during distance learning.

Dana Nerenberg, former Sitton Elementary principal, has already started her role as director of learning acceleration. It’s a role that came out of the pandemic and included designing the district’s Summer Acceleration Academy for students in elementary and middle school.

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Nerenberg said her experience working in the central office is a continuation of the work she did at Sitton, just “at a different level.” She said both roles center “everything on the experiences of our students and families.”

Former Creative Science School principal Meisha Plotzke said she wants to bring some of what’s worked in her school to the district, as the newly-created director of middle school innovation and redesign.

“When I was the principal at Creative Science, I would often hear from the community and other principals that they thought the practices happening at Creative Science could be expanded and provided for all students — such as project-based learning,” Plotzke said in an email.

“... I saw this position posted and thought it could be an opportunity to take practices that worked, learn about new practices around the country and bring them to all Portland middle schools.”

In her new role, she wants to focus on creating a middle school experience that serves all students, “especially our students who identify as Black, Native, or have learning disabilities.”

For current principals, Bird said the promotions and moves around the district show that there are opportunities for advancement and promotion in their career.

But as students and staff return to school after more than a year, some school communities may be dealing with more change

“It’s very important that we have stable environments in our schools,” Bird said.

Bird points to a school where the assistant principal filled a principal vacancy, as well as mentoring available for new principals.

“We have some retired principals who have worked for us...they are going to be working in those schools to support those new principals to make sure that they have an additional layer of support.”

Interim solutions at several Portland schools

Bryan Chu teaches at Harriet Tubman Middle School. He said the district’s hiring process, which includes asking staff what they’d like to see in a principal, isn’t collaborative. Chu suggests that results in candidates who aren’t right for the school and don’t stick around.

“If the fit was good … would principals be moving around?” Chu said.

He said his school needs a principal that will center students, staff, and families, rather than district directives, and let teachers do their jobs.

“We’re right back to where we were three years ago,” Chu said, referring to the state of leadership at the school when it reopened in 2018. Since then, the district has had two different principals. Tubman’s most recent principal, Louis Mair, is departing to lead a newly-opened middle school in Gainesville, Georgia.

Ockley Green’s most recent principal, Kristina Howard, has moved into an administrative role in the district’s Office of Teaching and Learning.

Both Tubman and Ockley Green may start the year with interim principals. That will be the case for other PPS schools too, including Richmond and Scott, where assistant principals are moving into the top roles. A search for a permanent principal at at least one other school, Buckman, is also still underway.

But Bird said someone will be in place to lead every PPS school by the start of the school year in September.

“We have a backup to the backup plan … plan A, B, and C in those cases,” Bird said.

“We’ll have a principal at that school to welcome the faculty and welcome the students when they return to school in a few weeks.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the city Louis Mair will be principal in. It is Gainesville, Georgia, not Florida. OPB regrets the error.

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