It's noon on a recent Thursday, and Connie Van Brunt pulls her glasses down her nose to reveal the tired eyes hidden behind them.
That morning, while much of Portland was still asleep, Van Brunt had attended a 7:30 am welcoming breakfast hosted by the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Just 12 hours earlier, she'd been flying back from the education conference of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle. And that was just one 24-hour period in Van Brunt's second week on the job.
Since her arrival in Portland July 9 as the new executive director of the Portland Schools Foundation, Van Brunt has been meeting leaders from the Urban League of Portland to interim Portland Public Schools Superintendent Ed Schmitt.
Her pace in Portland appears to match the urgency of her mission at the private foundation that raises money for Portland Public Schools—to boost student achievement in a district where tests show it's improving, but not fast enough. "There's no time to fool around," says Van Brunt.
A storyteller and self-identified "nerd," Van Brunt was a founding editor of Ebony, Jr.! magazine in 1973 and directed educational programs for a charter school organization in Chicago before coming to Portland.
WW: Does Portland live up to its progressive hype?
Connie Van Brunt: The African-American community had a welcoming reception for me. It was totally multicultural. They were saying they hadn't really done this type of thing, and that they were really happy to do that.
What does that say about Portland?
I was thinking, "There's a reason that they're doing this." Maybe the reason is me. But I'm humble. A lot of people grew up on Ebony, Jr.! magazine. But I think it was more than that. I think it was an affirmation of "We really want to see this work done, and we want to see it done well."
How does your race play a role in your job?
When I was interviewing with the staff, I said, "While you're checking me out, I'm also checking you out. Is the fact that I'm African American critical to how you feel about me, one? And, two, are you just looking for a figurehead?" Some organizations sometimes hire a figurehead of color, and that won't work with me. They were so funny and so candid. One woman said, "You're really qualified, but it helps that you're black." [Van Brunt laughs.]
What do you see as the role of a private foundation with respect to Portland Public Schools?
It seems as though it's evolving.... Things are in a good place now, in terms of school funding.... That gives the schools foundation a big opportunity to be engaged in community work.
What's that mean?
Just from my talk with Vicki Phillips [the former superintendent of Portland Public Schools, whom Van Brunt met for the first time at the recent Gates Foundation conference] it seems as though the schools are really on the right track on some of the things that they're pursuing, like the K-8 initiative [merging some elementary and middle schools]. The foundation is really on the right track with its role re-engaging kids who might be distant.
Shortly after wweek.com reported your hiring, retired educator Terry Olson raised questions about your work at a charter school organization in Chicago on his blog, joesschool.blogs.com. Had you ever been blogged about?
All the time.... But I'd never been blogged about critically. I take it as an open discussion instead of criticism. I was happy to be part of the discussion. I didn't think there was a clear understanding of me.
Some in Portland think charter schools threaten neighborhood schools. Why did you work for a charter school organization?
Here's the thing about charter schools. When I went there, [the CEO] said, "We have low-income children of color, and I know that's your deal." I said, "Yes, that's my deal." She said, "Our achievement profile isn't what we want it to be. We don't have a problem with money. If you had the funds to do what you think is most critical, what would you do?" I took the job and said, "In two years, we're going to move from this performance profile to one that's truly college preparatory."... That's a good thing. That's not a right-wing scheme to privatize public education.
Raised in California, Van Brunt is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The Portland Schools Foundation has an annual budget of $5.5 million to spend in a district with an annual budget of $400 million.