Superintendents of color are few and far between in Oregon and across the nation.

The head of Portland Public Schools said there are only seven in Oregon — out of nearly 200 school districts. Across the United States, they make up just four percent of district executives, while the share of students of color is many times that. Three of them met in Portland Wednesday to discuss their priorities and approaches to improving struggling urban schools.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero speaks at a forum on improving urban schools and outcomes for underserved students Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero speaks at a forum on improving urban schools and outcomes for underserved students Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

Courtesy of Beth Conyers/Portland Public Schools

The meeting was also something of a reunion, as New York City Public Schools chancellor Richard Carranza, PPS head Guadalupe Guerrero and the new superintendent of east Multnomah County’s Reynolds School District, Danna Diaz, have known each other the better part of a decade. All three rose to the highest levels of public school leadership out of working-class or low-income backgrounds. They studied together in the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, or ALAS; the Superintendents’ Leadership Academy; and have served in school districts across the country.

In addition, Guerrero worked under Carranza when the two were in the San Francisco Unified School District. Carranza was leading the Houston school district when he got the job earlier this year running the nation’s largest school district in New York City, while Guerrero got his first job as a superintendent last year in Portland. The United Way of the Columbia-Willamette hosted the wide-ranging conversation on public education at Franklin High School Wednesday.

Carranza acknowledged that the job of any chancellor or superintendent involves politics, and he said it’s appropriate for school leaders to take the side of disenfranchised children.

“In many of our communities … when you talk about being at those tables, where some of those decisions are made, in terms of how kids are served … that’s your role — you can’t back away from the politics,” Carranza argued.

Without mentioning President Donald Trump by name, Carranza said the last 18 months have been tough.    

“We’ve gone backwards,” Carranza said. “Our communities are frayed; our students are insecure. There’s federal policy that is looking to privatize public education.”

His advice?

“Wake up.”

The school leaders emphasized that the solutions to fixing schools are not a mystery. But they involve hard work, uncomfortable changes and acquiring resources — all challenges given politics not just on the national scale, but at the most local of levels.

Guerrero nodded to that when he joked about Portland’s interest in making ambitious improvements to its school system.

“What I appreciate about the opportunity in Portland, it’s a broader community that said it wanted ‘transformation’ — the challenge is that sometimes people don’t realize that means ‘change,’” he said.

Guerrero spelled out the components of what it takes to create sustained improvement in a school system: “professionalizing” the teaching force by ensuring they have the content and instructional skills they need, and engaging communities and creating systems that allow for widespread improvement, rather than “boutique reform.” But he said the change can’t all come from the top. 

“I’ve found very little in my unfinished research around prescriptive directives being a leverage point,” he said.

Reynolds Superintendent Danna Diaz agreed and said she saw her job as a central office administrator as “providing service” to principals, schools and ultimately, students.

“The people I work with, they’re my customer,” Diaz said. “How am I going to provide service?”

Each school leader described how their personal experience of growing up in difficult circumstances helped guide their own personally-held approaches to leading schools. 

Diaz said she attended four different elementary schools in New York and Puerto Rico, before dropping out of high school — only to later earn a doctorate. She became a superintendent, she said, to fix problems.

“When I was a teacher, I remember the people at the office yelling at the parents, because they couldn’t speak Spanish, and I thought, ‘If I become a principal, that won’t happen at my school,’” she said,

Diaz said she noticed wider-spread racism in school lunch programs, and those motivated her to become a superintendent. But to do that, she said, she had to earn her Ph.D. to break into a job market dominated by white men.

Diaz said the resilience that sustained her as she pursued her own levels of education has turned into perseverance as she works to improve schools, such as the high-poverty districts of east Multnomah County. 

“If you tell me no, I can’t do it, I’m going to tell you ‘Yes,’ and I’m going to show you how,” she said. 

Diaz moderated her blunt message by saying that leaders also have to make room for “love.”

“Not only do we love what we do, we love the students we serve,” Diaz said.

Carranza told the story of a fourth-grade teacher who told him he’d be a lawyer.

“I thought, ‘No one told me I would be a lawyer, my dad was a journeyman sheet-metal worker.’ All I’ve heard is ‘Hey, you’re going to be a journeyman sheet-metal worker,’” Carranza said.

Carranza said he got further encouragement in 10th grade when an English teacher said he was one of the best writers in the class.

Guerrero said he remembered well what it felt like to look at teachers and classmates and see no one who looked like him. He said he can relate to students who come to school from families that don’t speak English.

“My own experience, and what others might still be experiencing today entering the public school system not learning English, we know through language acquisition theory that can take a few years,” he said, recalling a typical “silent period” students go through as they’re learning a new language.

That silent period can last several years.   

“I think for me, that went through eighth grade,” he said. 

Guerrero said he felt “disconnected and disenfranchised,” until teachers started to recognize his musical talent and academic acumen.

Guerrero referred to students of color who react to those feelings of isolation by “externalizing” their discomfort, as documented through higher levels of behavior problems. But Guerrero said others, like him, are “internalizers,” and also need support.

“Everything looks good, but you don’t know what’s going on,” Guerrero said.

All three Latino superintendents emphasized the need to lead teachers and community members through difficult changes. Carranza spoke of a $23 million investment New York City schools are making in “implicit bias” training so that school staff can better support historically underserved students.

Diaz concluded her comments where Carranza had begun, with a political message. Hers was aimed at Salem and upcoming elections.

“We want to make sure that we pay our teachers well and our classified staff well, but the thing is, we don’t get enough funding to do that,” she said. “Let’s put our money where our mouth is, and vote for the people who will fund education the way it should be.”

Guerrero advocated forging a shared “agenda” to support families and children in the Portland area.

“I don’t think the urban core of America is going to be successful in serving all of its people unless it has some kind of a ‘collective vision,’ some kind of agenda for children, youth and families,” Guerrero said.

District officials said Guerrero will be introducing details of what that effort may look like for Portland in September.