Think Out Loud

Teachers and students struggle in Portland middle schools

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
May 17, 2022 9:41 p.m. Updated: May 25, 2022 11:16 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, May 19

Students at Harriet Tubman Middle School in Northeast Portland have been protesting over Portland Public Schools’ decision to place teacher Bryan Chu on leave. On May 13, 2022, students again left school and marched to the PPS district office to voice their concerns.

Students at Harriet Tubman Middle School in Northeast Portland have been protesting over Portland Public Schools’ decision to place teacher Bryan Chu on leave. On May 13, 2022, students again left school and marched to the PPS district office to voice their concerns.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


At Harriet Tubman Middle School, students are missing out on learning and walking out of classes as substitute teachers try to fill teacher vacancies. Students, teachers and parents at several other Portland middle schools are also facing similar challenges and are frustrated by a lack of support after more than a year of distance learning. OPB’s K-12 education reporter, Elizabeth Miller, joins us to talk about her recent reporting and the low morale that’s driving some middle school teachers to consider leaving the profession altogether.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: At Portland’s Harriet Tubman Middle School students are missing out on learning and walking out on classes as substitute teachers try to fill teacher vacancies and they’re not alone. Middle school students at other Portland Public Schools are really struggling as the first full year back to in person education enters its final month. OPB’s K- 12 education reporter Elizabeth Miller looked into this recently and joins us to talk about what she found is. Welcome back.

Elizabeth Miller: Thanks for having me.

Miller: So let’s start with this one middle school in particular, Harriet Tubman, which is in inner North Portland close to the Rose Quarter. What did you hear about what is an average day is like there right now?

E. Miller: Well, the average day there means a lot of subs, for some students, more subs than permanent teachers, and some students are in the classroom when school’s going on while other students are hanging out in the hallways.

Miller: Hallways when they should be in class.

E. Miller: Exactly. And things seem to be particularly tense right now. As you mentioned, groups of students are walking out pretty much weekly, they’re protesting one teacher on leave at the school, but more broadly they are just speaking out asking for help to improve the conditions at Tubman. It’s the end of the year and students say they aren’t really learning much and that kind of creates an environment where for some they don’t really want to be at school and don’t see the point if their teacher isn’t there or if they’re learning one thing one day and something totally different the next.

Miller: What did you hear from students?

E. Miller: I talked to a few Tubman students and parents about how things have been, including 7th grader Lauren who said, “The sub situation is just, you know, it’s very chaotic. No one listens. More of my teachers are subs than they are actual permanent teachers and they give us a worksheet, they give us a video and then whatever you do with your time, that’s kind of up to you. So it’s not a very effective way to learn. And once we get it, once we get into eighth grade or high school or whatever grade you’re in, you’re not going to be sufficiently prepared.”

Miller: You and I have talked a number of times about student struggles over the last two plus years now, when students were all at home and then when they started going back inside buildings. There was some hope on my part and I assume on the part of a lot of people that when kids got used to being back in the swing of things and the weirdness of being back at school again wore off, that things would get better, but it seems like that really hasn’t happened. The situation is still dire. How do you explain that?

E. Miller: It’s been a long two plus years and I think you’re right, that excitement was there to be back in school again. And I think it’s still there for students and teachers, but also with that excitement from the beginning of the year, there have also been some challenges from teacher shortages and substitute teacher shortages to students behavior. After being home for over a year, there was some adjusting that needed to happen while students are also trying to get back into a school routine and get used to doing school and learning again. So some of those issues were never resolved and schools have been kind of just getting through the year as best they could. And now at the end of the year, burnout is setting in. Tubman is a different case, but parents say things have been a struggle there all year. Nicole Kennedy has an eighth grader at Tubman and she’s also the president of the school’s PTSA. She says this is bigger than Brian Chu, the Tubman teacher that was placed on leave and is now under investigation by the district for allegations, including disruptions at board meetings. She said, “I don’t know the whole ins and outs of his investigation, but I do know that Harriet Tubman is not supporting the students the way they should be, and they’ve had plenty of opportunity and time to do so. And now, here we are in the middle of fourth quarter and school is about to be done and they’re still twiddling their wheels and talking about the process, they’re in the process of doing things.”

Miller: How much of what’s happening at Harriet Tubman is happening at other schools in Portland or around the state?


E. Miller: That was kind of my question and then why I first started reporting out this story to figure out if what’s happening at Tubman is happening at other schools. And I found out that it was. Even after the story was published, I heard from folks who said the story resonated with what they’ve seen or experienced at their middle school or their K-8 or other middle schools, not in Portland. Things are not the exact same at every Portland’s school. And Tubman has a couple of specific things, including a planned relocation and air quality concerns due to its proximity to I5, administrative turnover and at least that one teacher on leave as I mentioned. But statewide there’s the sub shortage and that’s been going on across the year. We’ve also heard stories over the years of school leaders and school staff seeing students coming in with more needs and just needing more help in general.

Miller: You looked at four middle schools in Portland, how many teachers have quit or been placed on leave?

E. Miller: So that’s an unknown at this point, I did ask the district about the number of teachers placed on leave over a month ago and have not received updated information about that. A PPS student has actually been calling for an audit of the district’s HR practices, citing the concern that teachers of color in particular might be being targeted or held to a different standard than their white peers. The teacher on leave at Tubman is a teacher of color. That student’s call has also received the support of an Oregon state rep as well as a Beaverton city councilor and reps from APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon) and the Portland NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). As for the number of teachers who have quit, I don’t really have district numbers for that at this point and it may not be known until the end of the school year. I’ve also heard of and talked to a teacher who has been on leave and does not plan to return to the classroom, but those folks are still technically teaching. They’re still listed on staff pages, but from talking to Portland Association of Teachers President Elizabeth Teal, numerous teachers have left George Middle School and I’ve also heard a handful of teachers have left Kellogg.

Miller: What did you hear from teachers who are teaching right now about the challenges they’re facing?

E. Miller: I think teachers are just exhausted. We’re all kind of tired at this point, but just trying to support students who not only need academic help but also help with what’s going on socially, emotionally or mentally and there’s not enough people around to do that. And there’s concerns about the safety of the school environment, not just for teachers, but for students. I talked to Colin Hawkins who is a teacher at Roseway Heights Middle School and that’s a school that’s been dealing with heightened behavior from students, a lot of bullying students not going to class. He said both students and teachers are just trying to get through the end of the year. He said, The students are demoralized. It’s pretty tough for teachers. In the mornings, there’s not a lot of like, hey, I’m so excited to be here. It’s great to see you. It’s like argh, 26 more days. Okay. Yeah, we can probably make it through. You know, like if we just get through this week, it’s not that much longer. We can make it like it’s, those are the conversations that we have with each other every day. We’re just trying to help each other get across the finish line of today. There’s not a lot of thought about how you feel about next year people. When you ask them about how they feel about next year, it’s nervous laughter or relatively unhappy facial expressions. I think they don’t have a lot of hope.”

Miller: I want to turn to the question of the age of students over the last two years, we’ve heard about the challenges that kindergartners or first graders are facing arriving at school not really knowing how to be in school or the challenge is safer for seniors two years ago, their last year of high school, with all these milestones evaporated in terms of in person life. What are the particular challenges for kids in these middle grades?

E. Miller:I think it comes from all the time spent in isolation and in remote learning when all the stuff that happens in middle grades, the social development, the added responsibility, the more independence. They didn’t really get that in the usual form of middle school. I talked to a school psychologist for this story who mentioned that students are coming to school feeling overwhelmed and with more anxiety and for older students, including middle schoolers, they haven’t had that social time in the last couple of years. So it’s just a wild time in middle school in general, but then you add a pandemic on top of it and I think it just creates this environment.

Miller: What have district officials said about the loss of teachers on the one hand and just that the broader reality inside middle schools right now?

E. Miller: I think there’s definitely an acknowledgement that middle schools have been challenging this year. I’ve heard that from the Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, the Chief of Staff, the board and there’s been some talk about how to fix it and how to specifically support middle schools, but I think what’s yet to be seen is what that actually looks like. And it’s also been said that every middle school might need something different.

Miller: What about the overall leaders of the district—the members of the school board– have they weighed in on what’s happening?

E. Miller: Yes, several board members have actually talked about visiting middle schools and seeing the need for more staff themselves with their own eyes and seeing that students need more help. It’s also been a really large part of the budget conversation. Portland, like every other school district, is voting on its budget for next year right now. And in Portland, the board is set to vote on next year’s budget next week. Earlier this week, the District folks announced that there’s an added nine million to spend for next year. And one of those ideas for how to spend that money includes increased staffing at middle schools, but board members continue to have their own ideas. One mentioned wanting restorative justice specialists. These are folks that kind of help avoid that kind of punitive justice for students. One board member mentioned wanting restorative justice specialists at every school. Another mentioned making sure every middle school student has access to a support staff, but I think we’ll see how that comes out in the budget conversation as it goes on.

Miller: Meanwhile, you wrote that some parents are just fed up enough that even parents who always thought that public school is right for their families, they’re considering putting their kids in private schools. What could continuing enrollment declines mean for the district?

E. Miller: I think it’s a cause for concern. That could mean resource issues and funding issues. If you see families leaving and families have already been leaving districts across the state across the country, but it might be a situation where you see families that can afford to leave public schools leave public schools and families who can’t stay.

Miller: Liz, thanks very much.

E. Miller: Thanks, Dave.

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