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Pulse – New chief academic officer: Ready for the challenge

September 08, 2010

Carla Randall, Portland Public Schools’ new instructional leader, brings a laser focus on equity in a time of tight resources.

A newsletter for families in Portland Public Schools

September 2010: In this issue

1. With teacher teamwork, Lee’s youngest readers thrive
2. A one-stop shop for back-to-school info
3. How can I help my student? Three tips for every family
4. Weeds, be gone!
5. Community barbecue launches ‘Roosevelt on the Rise’
6. Turf, turbines and toilets: Upgrades at PPS schools
7. New Chief Academic Officer: Ready for the challenge
8. With new play, Marshall teachers create powerful lesson guide
9. Board to land budget amid turbulence
10. Summer programs go beyond skill-building
11. ¿Listos? Fair gives families a smooth start
12. In other news
13. Survey: What do you want from PPS Pulse?

Carla Randall: aiming for equity.

As chief academic officer, Carla Randall oversees the school district's academic programs, including curriculum, special education, English as a second language, and talented and gifted services. Randall started her education career in 1977 teaching high school math in Lake Oswego and came to PPS in 1998.

Selected by Superintendent Carole Smith, Randall began her new position Aug. 10 following Xavier Botana’s departure.

Following is a question-and-answer with the new CAO.

You’ve held administrative positions at Jefferson, Cleveland, Wilson and Madison high schools. What common strengths and challenges do you notice across the district?

One thing that’s common in each of the schools I’ve been in is the passion that its community has for that school. Every school believes that it’s the best kept secret in Portland. There’s a high level of loyalty and passion for teachers.

The budget crisis is a challenge that they all share. A school starts to build new teachers into its community, and then they get cut or bumped, so there’s movement of teachers that isn’t healthy. It’s hard to get traction with a program.

If schools received full funding, what is the first thing you’d change?

I would prioritize having a highly trained, culturally responsive teacher able to use data to improve instruction in every classroom. The most important relationship in a school system is the one between the teacher and the student. It is also important for every teacher to feel supported by the principal and the system to do the hard work he or she needs to do.

As chief academic officer, you oversee the school district's academic programs, including curriculum, special education and English as a second language. How is it helpful to have one person manage academics?

It’s clear who will be held accountable. I’m the one who’s accountable. I expect to raise student achievement through each of those departments.

My approach is to build capacity for the people in the system so that they wouldn’t need me to do the work. This is something I do through collaboration rather than by myself. My job is to bring people together to have conversations and collaboratively decide on appropriate actions.

Superintendent Smith relies on me to make decisions in the instructional realm and manage that process. We talk about those decisions, but basically, there’s the expectation that I’ll do what’s right for kids.

To what degree is PPS’ academic program set by the state?

There are diploma requirements, and there are state assessments we need to prepare for. But the Oregon Department of Education is not telling us how to teach.

I think we need to build a culture of bringing teachers together in professional learning communities to look at classroom data regularly to inform instruction – to improve the way we teach -- rather than just looking at state assessments once a year, and asking ourselves, ‘Did we make it?’ Some schools are doing that already, and some are not. Our partnership with the Nike School Innovation Fund has supported many PPS schools to move in this direction.

Another thing we’re doing is setting clear goals for what students should learn – at key points in their education – through the Milestones initiative. This fall, Superintendent Smith will report our progress on these Milestones, particularly focusing on three important measures: students reading well at third grade, writing well at seventh grade and on track to graduate in 10th grade.

PPS is using a method called Courageous Conversations to initiate discussions among staff about race and equity. Can you talk about this work?

Courageous Conversations is a protocol that allows you to stay in a conversation about race when it gets uncomfortable. It can really freak people out to be in a conversation where people can call them racist.

The purpose is to build racial consciousness with a focus on eradicating institutional racism. It’s not about stopping individual acts of racism. Courageous Conversations gives you tools to look at the decisions you’re making and a lens for equity and excellence that you can use with every decision. There are structures in place in the PPS system that promote institutional racism, and it is our moral responsibility to identify those structures and change them, so every student is able to learn.

The end goal is that you’ll no longer be able to predict a student’s academic success based on his or her race.

What is the current situation?

We have a significant achievement disparity between white students and, in particular, black and brown students.

There are schools with high percentages of students of color with high achievement levels – both schools in our system and in other school districts. We know how to educate every child, but sometimes we don’t have the will to do it, or we focus blame on the family or the student.  We need to build a system in which the teachers, who are predominantly white middle class, believe that every child can learn and a system that supports teachers to teach every child effectively. I expect to have a big impact on that.

One of the things that I really appreciate about Carole is that she is comfortable with me working to be a better anti-racist leader. She supports that work.

What would you like PPS families and staff know about you?

I’ve been doing this work for a long time. And it feels like, with the professional and personal experiences that I’ve had, I’m in a place where I can have a significant impact. I love Portland Public Schools, and I will be holding myself and the people who work with me to a very high standard.

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