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April 13th, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

VICKI'S VISION

Can a former Kentucky cheerleading coach save Portland schools?

     
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The agent of Portland schools' destiny is a 47-year-old, twice-divorced, childless administrator who speaks with a hint of a Kentucky drawl.

Superintendent Vicki Phillips comes to Portland when its schools are at a turning point. Sure, people have been saying that for a decade, but now that point may truly have arrived-and the person hired one year ago to deal with it seems as serene and unfazed as a Buddhist monk.

Cutting 300 teachers? No problem. Closing down five neighborhood schools? An efficiency move. Proposing a merger that puts 12-year-olds in with high-school kids at Jefferson? All part of the plan-next question?

More than in most cities, Portland's middle class is still invested in public schools, which has kept the city's urban core healthy. History has shown in city after city, from Boston to Hartford, what happens when the middle class flees, leaving ghettos and failing schools behind. By contrast, approximately 84 percent of Portland's kids learn in public schools. But after years of bad news-the threat of lost school days, failed superintendent searches, school closures-parents are starting to turn elsewhere. The dilemma, says education guru Connie Warren of the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation, is that Portland public schools "will proceed to get worse and worse and lose people as charter shools and Beaverton and home schooling sort of rise-if it doesn't turn itself around. So it's at this kind of turning point."

It's no exaggeration to say that more than Mayor Tom Potter, more than Gov. Ted Kulongoski-indeed, more than any politician-this unelected former high-school special-ed teacher and cheerleading coach turned education-establishment rock star holds the fate of Portland in her hands.

Phillips says she's driven to make Portland a test case in how a troubled urban district can be saved. And though viewed suspiciously by some parents as a carpetbagger who will soon move on, Phillips says she will not leave until she succeeds.

"This is my last superintendency," she says. "I'm not somebody that's going to go from district to district.

"If it can't be done in Portland, then it can't be done," she adds. "And I refuse to accept that."

Last week, Phillips marked her one-year anniversary since the Portland Public Schools board decided to hire her (she started four months later). Since then, dropped onto a surfboard on a speeding swell, she's been carving arcs between razor-sharp coral, sharks and riptides.

Who is this person? Is she for real? How will we know if she's succeeding?

In late March, a crowd of 50 people are at school-district headquarters to oppose Phillips' plan to close Harriet Tubman Middle School and fold seventh- and eighth-graders into troubled Jefferson High School.

At the last minute, facing stiff opposition, Phillips and the school board have backed off somewhat, proposing a committee to look at the Jefferson plan. To many in the audience, however, the committee looks like it will have a predetermined conclusion.

One by one, tearful and outraged parents and Northeast residents step to the microphone to call Phillips and her board closet bigots and heartless backroom-dealers. North Portland parent and teacher Nancy Smith, for instance, says Phillips' ideas look "racist, separate and unequal."

Wearing a black pantsuit, hair drawn back by a trademark headband into an aggressive mid-part, Phillips listens attentively, taking copious notes. When someone says something she agrees with, like stressing the importance of education, she smiles warmly and nods in agreement-even if that same person a moment before has painted her as vile scum.

After hours of this, the board is poised to vote for Phillips' committee, though two members, Lolenzo Poe and DilaFruz Williams, are dissenting. But Phillips is not satisfied. She interrupts the board's deliberations.

"OK, this is maybe out of line," Phillips says, shooting a look at her board members, "but let me work on a proposal.... Let's take a break while I work on some language."

The audience erupts in a buzz of near-disbelief-is the school-closure express train really slowing down?-as board members huddle and Phillips scribbles. In the end, Phillips takes out any specific reference to making Jefferson seventh- through 12th-grade, making the Tubman closure appear less of a done deal-though it remains a possibility. As the board's unanimous vote is taken, even Nancy Smith stands up and applauds. "I'm feeling more hopeful than I did before this meeting," she tells WW. Ten days later, at a citizens committee, people are still thanking Phillips.

"That was a magical moment," says parent Doug Wells.

Welcome to school politics, a zone where the stakes are so intensely personal that parents and teachers routinely break down and cry at public hearings.

That March 28 board meeting was as emotional as any, and it showed two things: First, that Phillips listens with her ego in check.

"People think she's just a tough skirt," says board member Lolenzo Poe. "But she has a very compassionate heart."

But the meeting also showed an outsider's capacity to march boldly into a Portland-politics bloodbath. With scant notice or discussion, to close down a middle school-named after the anti-slavery heroine of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, no less-in Portland's most African-American neighborhood? And making that neighborhood's seventh- and eighth-graders be the only ones in the city to be dropped into a high-school scene rife with the adult-style pressures of dating, drugs and gangs?

"I don't know who told her that was going to work," says Toye Jones, a parent of three and president of the King Elementary PTA, who was among the opponents who spoke that night. Thanks to the way the Jefferson issue was handled, Jones says, the community distrust will be hard to overcome. "To me her biggest misstep was PR," says Jones. "If she had held some community forums beforehand, I think a lot of these issues wouldn't have occurred."

Phillips, she adds, is "asking people to walk through a dark tunnel and telling them at the end there's light-but nobody sees it. She's saying 'trust me' to a community that has paid a terrible price for trusting in the past."

Vicki Lynn Phillips grew up in Falls of Rough, Ky., a town she calls a "little bitty postage stamp of a place"-essentially a streetcorner with a flour mill, a post office and a general store.

She lived on a small tobacco farm; her stepfather also worked in a quarry while her mom was a school-bus driver. She attended a high school 35 miles away. She was the oldest; her half-sister was seven years younger. Because of her dirt-poor upbringing, she says, people at school didn't want to get her hopes up by talking about college.

Phillips became a rebel of sorts: First, she became the only member of her family to join a church, Southern Baptist; then she decided to get a college education over her stepfather's opposition. "I literally got in a car with a friend of mine and drove off," she recalls, adding that her stepdad "told me not to come back for a while."

She remembers in ninth grade when layoffs hit her school and a smart, energetic, inspiring first-year teacher was canned while, thanks to seniority, a burnt-out teacher known for the liquor bottle in her desk kept her job. Experiences like these, Phillips says, keep her focused on reform and "keep my spine stiff."

Phillips' background explains her passion, says Julia Brim-Edwards, a school-board member who, despite being a Jaguar-driving, Nike-executive mom, has kept her kids in public school. When Phillips talks about the poor conditions some kids face in schools, "I've heard outrage," says Brim-Edwards.

Last Wednesday, Phillips came to work at 6 am and went nonstop-shuttling from meeting to meeting, dispensing direction and comfort to worried teachers and central-office staff-until finishing off with a school-board meeting that wrapped up at 10:30 pm. During this 16-and-a-half-hour day, she grabs food on the fly, if she eats at all.

There's no time, she says: She was hired to make decisions "that had been avoided for years."

On Phillips' list:

Schools: The flip side of what makes Portland special-having most of its kids in public school-is that the number of kids in school is in decline. That's because fewer Portlanders have kids, and they have fewer of them. But until this year, the district had about the same number of schools as it did in 1965, when about 80,000 students were enrolled. Today, thanks to the rising price of housing and fewer families in Portland city limits, enrollment is down to about 47,000 and headed downward still. Some schools operate at only one-third capacity.

As a result, Phillips has closed down four elementary schools as well as Whitaker Middle School, merging them with other operations. Tubman is still on the table, and more closures cannot be ruled out.

Money: Due to the vagaries of state law, Portland contributes more in funds to the state to support K-12 education than it gets back-$130 million each year, according to a 2002 study by the Portland consulting firm Impresa. And it attracts special-ed kids from all over the state-adding financial and teaching demands for which it is not compensated. For years Portland has tried to cough up extra, most recently with a local income tax and before that a local-option levy. Both of those are expiring in the next two years.

In response, Phillips is planning cuts spread over two years and asking her staff relentlessly to do more with less: elementary schools, for instance, are typically losing as many as five teachers each. District headquarters is cutting $9 million worth of staff and other costs. For all staff, no more going to the same "networking" conferences each year. No more applying for grants that distract from the mission.

"You've got to use that word that we all don't like to use: 'No,'" Phillips told central-office administrators at a meeting last week. "This is about teachable moments, right?"

She is also enlisting business support for schools and plans to bring the fight to Salem to squeeze more funding out of Gov. Kulongoski and Republican lawmakers. She is talking to local leaders about a new regional tax of some kind for the May 2006 ballot. And she is part of a push to get stable state school funding for the long term, in a few years time.

Achievement Gap: Portland has a growing number of non-native English speakers, largely Latino, Asian and Eastern European immigrants. This, combined with a large number of kids growing up in poverty, has brought scores down in some schools. Parents who have the energy and know-how to work the system do-getting their kids into better schools with better teachers and exacerbating the inequality.

"Portland Public really is the tale of two districts," Poe, an African-American county administrator, said at a recent board meeting. "On one hand, you have a district that is highlighted by hope, aspirations, challenging and high achieving. On the other side, you have a district that is embedded in mistrust, failed promises and broken initiatives."

To combat this, Phillips is raising graduation requirements, as well as focusing on early childhood through the third grade, adding full-day kindergarten at eight elementary schools and vowing to have pre-kindergarten options for all kids within the next couple of years. She has plans for things like student poetry readings and "back-to-school night," efforts that helped boost parental involvement at her previous superintendent's post in Lancaster. A master of education fundraising, she excels at shaking down foundations and businesses.

Morale: This year, with scant notice to teachers, the district took the vast majority of special-needs students-learning-disabled, behavior problems, etc-and mainstreamed them directly into regular classrooms. So last Wednesday, when Phillips told a group of teachers at Madison High that expectations and graduation requirements would be raised, an algebra teacher raised her hand. Fighting back tears, she said an impossibly large chunk of her class was learning-disabled or illiterate.

"I teach algebra, and half my kids can't read," she said. "I've lost half my students-and we get blamed for failing them."

Besides the chaos, teachers have to deal with increased testing and standards. "I work 65 to 70 hours a week," one teacher told WW. "I work more every year."

In February, Phillips built huge political capital with teachers when she fired the man many considered their nemesis, human-resources director Steve Goldschmidt.

Ann Nice of the Portland Association of Teachers says her union's members are gratified to finally be led by someone who knows the plight of a teacher. But "things haven't changed yet in their day-to-day existence," she adds.

The Contract: More than in other school districts, Portland's union contract allows teachers and principals with seniority to leave troubled schools and move to other schools within the district. That means under-achieving schools get a steady flow of rookie teachers. Phillips says her main priority in the upcoming talks is tackling that issue.

Phillips is hopeful that increased communication and better labor relations will help when contract talks resume in December. The union is not quite as rosy in its outlook: Whatever capital Phillips built up by canning Goldschmidt, says Nice, evaporated with her Jefferson-Tubman merger proposal: "Teachers were not involved in that decision before it happened."

When Phillips ends her days of politico-bureaucratic grappling, she drives home in her off-white Audi convertible to a cute one-story cottage in one of Northeast Portland's swankier neighborhoods. The house cost her $540,000. She brought all her own furniture out from Pennsylvania-antique Spanish chairs reupholstered in bright purple, colorful paintings, plush couches and red-lacquered wood chests. Rather than awards and plaques, her living room wall is lined with bright watercolor representations of kids playing in a school band.

Partly because she is rarely here, she concedes, her home is immaculate. For the same reason, her refrigerator is almost bare, populated mainly by five cans of Diet Pepsi, two pears, a round of merlot cheddar, bottles of champagne and chardonnay, low-carb ketchup and a mostly empty jar of Adams 100 percent natural peanut butter. "You will always find peanut butter in my refrigerator," she says.

Her bookshelf has a stack of VHS tapes: Erin Brockovich, The Contender, Batman and The Mask of Zorro. In addition to the expected books on leadership (Elizabeth I, CEO and The Presidential Character) and education, there are several sci-fi/fantasy novels featuring strong women battling evil. For Phillips, it's all about leadership and heroism, even at the cost of harsh attacks and being misunderstood by the public.

"Does it hurt sometimes to have results or motivations questioned? Well sure it does, you're a human being. I also have to be the person that looks myself in the face in the morning and says, 'Did I do the things that I believe were right?'" she says.

Phillips does not crack or show clear anger during a two-hour grilling at her home. When the questioning becomes intense and argumentative, she pauses, looks away and taps the sofa cushion next to her twice-hard-whether to buy time or blow off steam is unclear.

What drives her workaholism and compulsive urge to fix things at schools, she says, is her own upbringing. For her, education is a "mission," a "moral imperative" to give all students a fair shake.

"I literally know the difference between no expecations and high expectations," she says, "I believe that kids should get the opportunities that I've gotten-college and other things-by design, not by luck. And I feel like I got mine by luck."

She is not ashamed of coaching cheerleaders during her first high-school teaching job. Her principal assigned her the task, "and those are the things I get aggravated about, right?" she says, stressing the third syllable, Southern-style. "And yet I ended up having a great time with those girls. I ended up making the squad coed; I ended up taking them to a national championship."

Her house is filled with evidence of her love of kids-photos of her nephew, artwork, etc. Does her lack of children affect how she views her job? "People used to say, 'You don't have kids,' as if not having them I couldn't do the right thing for them. And I'd start to say, 'Yes, I do have kids; I just don't take them home at night. I don't think that affects my desire to do the right thing for kids or my ability to do that. "

As for the criticisms that her attempt to shut down Tubman showed she is politically tone-deaf, "I would say we have a disagreement on that. ... The best way to honor the Harriet Tubman name is to create an incredible school for kids. Tubman and Whitaker are two of the lowest-performing middle schools, not just in the city but in the state. It is my job to do something about that."

Her job, she says, is to shake things up. "Will I get some things right and make some mistakes here? Sure, I will. I don't think you can be a leader without those things happening."

Phillips' fans talk about her decisive leadership and encyclopedic mind, but perhaps her greatest strength is an ability to connect with people with sympathy and humor. Last week, for instance, she met with jittery central-office staff in the district headquarters auditorium:

"I just wanted to check in and see how you are doing," she says, standing in the front of the room dressed in a black polyester blazer with a muted brown tiger stripe. As she breezes through a Powerpoint presentation on the district's budget quandary, Phillips hardly looks at it and does not refer to notes. Instead, she pivots from side to side, makes eye contact with members of her audience, and alternately wins their sympathy and laughter of approval.

"It was one year ago last week that I took this job," she says. Then, with a facetious shrug and a casual tone of voice that draws chuckles, she adds, as if she's a teenager confiding something to a friend: "So, yeahhhh, I still like it."


Portland Public Schools employs about 6,700 people and comprises almost 48,000 students.

Phillips attended Western Kentucky University for her bachelor's and master's degrees. She obtained an Ed.D. from Lincoln University in England.

Before coming to Portland, Phillips was Pennsylvania's secretary of education. Before that, she headed the Lancaster, Penn., public-school district, which had a $100 million budget, one-quarter the size she inherited in Portland.

Upon leaving Lancaster, Phillips was hailed for boosting morale as well as test scores among elementary students. More recently, however, press coverage in Pennsylvania has been critical, based on a state audit that criticized her oversight of consultant contracts.

In Portland, Phillips has taken some heat for hiring several public-relations consultants, though the district already has a seven-member PR staff. Phillips has said the district needs to revamp its communications with parents as well as the press.

Phillips' closest ally in Portland is Cynthia Guyer, head of the Portland Schools Foundation. The foundation has been active in raising funds, pushing reforms and building alliances with Portland's business community.

In March, the Portland Business Alliance board issued a resolution in support of Phillips' leadership-an unusual move for a group focused on business climate.

 
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