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Portland School Board Favors Rising Education Star For Superintendent Job

Donyall Dickey, chief academic officer and chief of schools in Atlanta Public Schools, was earlier named the finalist to become Portland's new superintendent.

Donyall Dickey, chief academic officer and chief of schools in Atlanta Public Schools, was earlier named the finalist to become Portland’s new superintendent.

Portland Public Schools/PPS

The Portland school board announced Donyall Dickey as its preferred choice Friday to be the district’s next superintendent.

Dickey is the chief schools officer and chief academic officer in Atlanta. He’s been in Atlanta since July 2015. Before that, he spent two years as a school administrator in Philadelphia. For a decade and a half before that, Dickey was a teacher and middle school principal in Baltimore.

Dickey emerged from a Wednesday night interview with the school board a bit tired but smiling.

“Parents are sending their kids to Portland Public Schools every day, and teachers are committed to the work,” Dickey told OPB. “Why wouldn’t I want to be part of such an organization? I’m excited.”

Dickey would be the first person of color to lead Oregon’s largest school district since Ben Canada resigned as Portland superintendent in 2001.

‘An Amazing Track Record’

Dickey’s supporters on the school board point to strong references, support from the district’s own 17-member stakeholder advisory committee and records of Dickey’s promising initiatives from Pennsylvania to Georgia.

Portland Public Schools board chair Tom Koehler said he started to really get behind Dickey when he spoke to people who worked for him, with him, or above him in places like Atlanta and Philadelphia. 

“He has an amazing track record of turning schools around very quickly — going in and making changes in institutions that are resistant to change,” Koehler said. “He has an incredible grasp of education and his leadership skills are off charts.”  
School board members interviewed Dickey for nearly three hours behind closed doors at a Northeast Portland hotel Wednesday. That followed six hours of interviews last week with board members and an advisory committee.
Dickey emerged as the leading contender out of three semi-finalists, but board members wanted to run him through additional questions before announcing him as the finalist.

Through the process, he allayed concerns of several members of the board. Student representative Aliemah Bradley said she grew more comfortable with Dickey the more board members prodded him with follow-up questions.

“His answers never changed,” Bradley said. “When you asked him to go more in-depth, he could. I think that he really is an outstanding educator and will bring amazing things to this district.”

Bradley said Dickey had done his homework about Portland, and it showed in interviews. Talking to OPB on a cell phone as he drove through Atlanta, Dickey was able to rattle off the demographic percentages of the PPS student body. 

Dickey holds a masters degree in educational leadership from Loyola University and a doctorate in policy studies from George Washington University.
He also has a compelling personal story.

His father wasn’t around when he was growing up, and his mother was addicted to drugs, so he was raised by his late grandmother, whom he quotes often. Dickey remains close with his extended family and he said they’re supportive of his advancing in his career. He’s not married.

Experience Cleaning Up After Controversy

Dickey is a curriculum wonk. Dickey’s resume lists 15 books and instructional manuals he’s written, but his total count is higher than that. Much of what he’s self-published are classroom lessons aligned to Common Core State Standards — the challenging and sometimes controversial benchmarks in states across the country, including Oregon.

If hired, Dickey would technically take over for the interim head, Bob McKean, but the shoes he’d be filling belong to Carole Smith, who retired early amid the scandal involving lead in school drinking water.

Dickey has some experience cleaning up after controversy.

Atlanta was rocked by a cheating scandal that investigations show dated back to the early 2000s, but was still reverberating in 2015 when Dickey arrived. As superintendent in Portland, Dickey said he’d want to start moving the district forward by listening, rather than immediately trying to push solutions. He expects to be tested early, as difficult decisions over shrinking budgets loom in districts across Oregon. 

Though Dickey may not officially start until summer, he’d become the public face of a district asking voters to approve a $790 million bond this May.

Dickey is excited by the promise of healthier and more modern schools in Portland. He said he sees that financial ask as a hopeful sign.

“Portland Public Schools is on the precipice of something great,” he said. “It’s fully supported by the community, as evidenced by the support for the referendum.”

Chair Koehler believes Dickey has the right skills and personality to restore trust in the Portland community before the measure hits ballot boxes.

“He is a straight shooter, and he’s a problem-solver, and he’s a great communicator,” Koehler said. “We have all the confidence in the world that he would be in a great position to bring the community together.”

Some Hesitation From The Board

There are two aspects of Dickey’s selection that give board members some hesitation.

One is that Dickey has never been a superintendent, and unlike Carole Smith — who hadn’t been one either — he comes from outside Portland. That’s a significant concern for at least one school board member, Pam Knowles, whose zone covers much of Northeast Portland.

“I guess I was hoping that we would have someone — or more candidates that had more actual experience being a superintendent,” Knowles told OPB. 

But Dickey argues he’s taken all the right steps to be ready for to the top post in public schools. 

“When you look at the job of a superintendent — you pile it up, it’s as high as a skyscraper,” Dickey said. “But leadership is leadership.”

Dickey argues that he’s done work very similar to what a superintendent does as the chief of academics and schools in Atlanta — a district slightly larger than Portland at 55,000 students.

“I oversee twelve, thirteen departments here in Atlanta Public Schools,” he said from Atlanta Thursday.

Dickey recited several complex areas he supervises: “the daily operation of schools, teaching and learning, curricular programs, student services, special education, the core curricular areas, the alignment of assessment and instruction — to manage those departments, you have to understand leadership very well; you have to understand ‘followership’ very well.”

Another trend that may stick out to Portlanders from Dickey’s biography: he has changed jobs several times in the last few years. He left Baltimore for Philadelphia in 2013, then changed jobs within Philadelphia in 2014, then left for Atlanta in 2015. 

He and supporters like Koehler point out that with every change, Dickey has been promoted. Dickey points out if you look at the totality of his career, he did stay a long time in Baltimore — from the start of his career in 1997 until 2013.

If the underlying concern is that Donyall Dickey might leave Portland quickly, there’s this point, too: all of Dickey’s experience has been on the East Coast.

Dickey said he appreciates the clean air and beauty of Portland and likes the people he’s met in the district so far. He’s not worried about the transferability of what has helped him be successful so far.

“I tell you one thing — teaching and learning is teaching and learning,” Dickey said. “So whether it’s the north, south, east or the west — if we expose our kids to high-quality instruction, they won’t just meet our expectations, they will exceed our expectations.”

Still Just A Finalist

Dickey conveys an air of confidence, with a measure of humility and caution, at times. He notes that he’s still just a finalist. The school board said there will be a formal vote on a contract in the weeks to come. Board members intend to visit Atlanta for a site visit, and officials will have to negotiate the final contract.

So when asked how long he might stay in this not-quite-an-offered-job, Dickey is careful.

“I would like to fulfill my contract,” Dickey said.

His predecessor as permanent superintendent, Carole Smith, stayed nine years. But the average tenure for the leader of an urban public school system? Three and a half years.

When pressed, Dickey gave the same answer that board members have heard from him: “I’d like to remain the superintendent as long as the board and the community would like to have me.”

March 4, 2017, 7:29 a.m. PST: This story was updated to include quote from Pam Knowles.

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