Portland Public Schools has renamed its district offices after Matthew Prophet, the first Black superintendent to lead the district.
The board passed the resolution unanimously at its Tuesday meeting, agreeing that the Blanchard Education Service Center will now be known as the Dr. Matthew Prophet Education Service Center.
The action to rename the large building on the east bank of the Willamette River follows a petition that received over 200 signatures and support from the Oregon Alliance of Black School Educators.
Black educators and former school board members spoke in support of Prophet, who led Oregon’s largest school district from 1982 to 1992.
Retired PPS administrator Harriet Adair read a letter citing the local and national context in which Prophet entered Portland, as well as his accomplishments. In the early ‘80s, Adair said Portland schools faced high dropout rates, inequities in school funding and achievement for students of color and low-income students, and tensions between teachers and the community.
“During his decade with Portland Public Schools, test scores across the district ascended as did the public support, confidence, and involvement in district initiatives and programs,” Adair said.
On behalf of the Oregon Alliance of Black School Educators, Adair and former PPS Principal Kevin Bacon also shared a video honoring Prophet that included comments from Sen. Lew Frederick, former PPS superintendent Carole Smith, and former assistant superintendent Ernest Hertzog. The video ended with Prophet’s comments from a 1985 video at Whitaker Middle School.
“Increased representation of staff in all PPS schools to reflect student and community populations” and “increased exposure to technology, textbook adoptions, and community collaborations that reflected our global communities” read the final slide of the video.
Board members also shared stories of their encounters with Prophet. Board vice chair Gary Hollands recalled seeing Prophet as a middle school student.
“That is kind of my first time seeing a Black man in a position of power, and it gave me that option that, ‘oh, we can do this,’” Hollands said.
Chair Andrew Scott remembered meeting Prophet in high school, after winning a national championship with the Wilson High School jazz band. “We were able to play for him, and I just remember his presence... I just remember the reverence the people at the school had for him,” Scott said.
Prophet died earlier this year. The Oregonian reported that he was 92, and had been living in California.
The PPS district office had been named for Robert Blanchard, who served as superintendent before Prophet. Blanchard faced criticism for his plan to desegregate Portland schools and was fired after ongoing protests led by the Black United Front and members of Portland’s Black community.
“He’d done a lot of harm to our Black community here in Portland,” said PAT president Angela Bonilla Tuesday, speaking about Blanchard. “He and the school board put the burden of integration on the backs of our Black and African American students, bussing them around the community and closing down schools.”
Bonilla was one of several public comments offering support for the renaming.
Tuesday’s renaming resolution comes on the heels of a multi-year effort from district leaders to raise academic achievement and support for students of color, and Black students in particular. The board has directed some of its COVID relief funding to Black students, and tied the superintendent’s performance evaluation in part to a focus on improved achievement for Black and Indigenous students.
At the board meeting, PPS also approved a resolution to enter into an agreement with Albina Vision Trust to sponsor the Center for Black Excellence, a new nonprofit. With the CBE, the district and Albina Vision Trust will develop a Center for Black Student Excellence, part of the district’s 2020 voter-approved bond proposal. The renovation of Jefferson High School is also a part of the district-led efforts to support Black students and families in Portland.
In the resolution, district leaders acknowledged PPS’ shortcomings and stated the goal of the CBE.
“For close to 170 years, PPS has failed to respond to struggles of communities of color, especially Black and Native American students,” according to the resolution.
“Together, the CBSE [Center for Black Student Excellence] and the Jefferson High School modernization will... develop a coherent set of strategies that will positively impact student achievement and outcomes while affirming Black identity and will include promoting and supporting culturally responsive/sustaining teaching and learning, beginning with the youngest students and throughout their educational journeys,” the resolution said.
There has been little information and few public meetings about the Center for Black Student Excellence, beyond a presentation during a work session last spring. A job seeking a Center for Black Student Excellence director has been posted since April.
The renaming of the administration building also comes on the heels of renaming efforts of schools in Portland and nationally. Two Portland high schools started the year with new names: McDaniel High School (formerly Madison High School) and Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School (formerly Wilson High School). Jefferson High School and Cleveland High School have also been a part of renaming conversations, but no action has been taken.