The Recruit

Portland Public Schools brought Erica Jones to Portland. In less than a year, she was put on leave. Here’s what went wrong.

Portland Public Schools hired Erica Jones to solve a problem.

In less than a year, the school district decided she was the problem.

Jones, 29, moved to Portland from Atlanta one year ago to teach third and fourth grade in the Portland Public Schools. The 2008 graduate of Spelman College was a catch for PPS: She was young, enthusiastic and, unlike most of the district's teachers, black.

She lasted just eight months.

On April 21, 2015, the district put Jones on paid administrative leave—in effect firing her.

What happened to Jones during her brief stint at North Portland's Peninsula K-8 School isn't a simple story. It's messy, and there may never be a full picture of what took place. The district, citing employee privacy laws, declined to discuss Jones' case. Peninsula's principal, Silvia Asson, also declined to be interviewed.

To its credit, PPS recognized a need for more black teachers and sent recruiters 2,000 miles to Atlanta, a city nearly as black as Portland is white.

The district recruited Jones, paying her airfare and moving expenses, as part of a modest but aggressive effort to increase the number of African-American teachers in the district.

She's one of 10 teachers Superintendent Carole Smith has paid to move from other cities since 2014 to bolster PPS's minority faculty or fill other hard-to-hire positions.

But Jones' story shows how the district's best intentions were easier to imagine than to execute.

Ten percent of PPS's students are black, but only 5 percent of its 3,400 teachers are. At Peninsula K-8 School, in the Kenton neighborhood, 16 percent of the 400 students identified as black last year, compared with about 7 percent of its teachers.

Illustration by Caleb Misclevitz. Source PPS. Illustration by Caleb Misclevitz. Source PPS.

"I don't believe I was brought there to be like everyone else," Jones says now. "I was there to expose kids to something different."

But Jones says PPS couldn't handle the reality of the differences the district wanted to bridge.

In a lengthy interview with WW, Jones, who speaks with a calm cadence punctured by occasional bursts of exasperation, has plenty of blame to spread around.

She says she clashed with a principal who offered poor guidance, a few parents who couldn't handle her straight talk, and an ineffective and inequitable system of student discipline that taught kids—all kids—there were no consequences for bad behavior.

Erica Jones is just one teacher in a district that employs thousands. And it's unclear how much of her story is the product of culture clash, personality conflicts or racial blind spots.

If she shares in the blame, Jones doesn't have the distance yet to admit it. She says her only mistake was believing PPS wanted her to succeed. "I shouldn't have been as trusting," she says.

Today, Jones is back teaching on the East Coast. But the problems she encountered in Portland continue. And her story shows the muddled, on-the-ground results of the district's good intentions.

Here's the story Jones told WW.

Jones wasn't expecting to travel across the county to Portland in 2014. She stumbled into her job at PPS.

You have a lot of doubt when you go into education. Older people telling you, "Don't do it." The stress. The pay.

I thought teaching was my calling. I was very passionate about it, even in high school, when I joined Future Educators of America. Most people who knew me then would be like, "I wouldn't be surprised if you're a superintendent in a few years."

I had just finished up the 2013-14 school year, teaching fourth grade in Georgia. I was at home cruising the Internet, when I found an ad for Portland Public Schools on Craigslist. They were going to be at a historically black colleges and universities job fair in downtown Atlanta a few days later.

Then I found a website—"things you should know about Portland." It said: "Portland is the whitest city in America. It rains all the time and people don't use umbrellas."

At that point, I had been teaching for three years in a predominately African-American public school, where most of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

I wanted something different. I had lived my whole life on the East Coast. I was in my 20s, and I wasn't tied down.

I dressed up and went to the job fair.

I will give it to PPS. Their recruitment team does an excellent job of drawing you in.

I met an African-American teacher from PPS at the job fair. She had worked in the district where I worked. She also knew one of my friends from Spelman. She told me an African-American kid could go through school in PPS and never have a teacher who looked like him.

I thought, "I need to go and help." You want to be Superman, of course.

The financial incentives were attractive, too. They told me I'd make more money. There was no sales tax. And they would reimburse me for my travel expenses, including my flight and extra luggage.

I met with one of PPS's recruiters. She invited me to breakfast at the Flying Biscuit Cafe with other PPS employees. It was a hippie part of Atlanta. The neighborhood looked pretty much like Portland, they told me.

I had my interview later that day. Two African-American teachers asked me to devise, on the spot, a lesson plan with three items—a textbook, an apple and a pencil.

I told them I would teach force and motion. And since we know that they're going to have a chair in the classroom, we could flip it over and use it as our incline.

They liked it. As a matter of fact, one of the interviewers tried to call her principal right away, because she really wanted him to talk to me. She said, "I want you at our school."

Under Superintendent Smith, PPS has focused on keeping kids in classrooms by not suspending or expelling them for poor behavior. The district says the more often a student is suspended, the less likely he or she is to graduate.

Jones experienced culture shock almost as soon as she arrived in Portland, in part because she wasn't prepared for the district's new approach to discipline.

I arrived at Peninsula feeling like I was really going to make a difference in the lives of students of color.

There were signs of PPS's dysfunction from the beginning.

When I got to my classroom, it still had stuff from the previous teacher. He had pictures of his wife still on the wall. That was weird to me, and it should have been my omen. It was like he had been disappeared.

The first day of school was overwhelming. They had way more kids than they had anticipated. So I ended up having 30 kids in my class—a mix of third- and fourth-graders—and not enough seats. That had never happened to me in Georgia.

But what really shocked me was the total disrespect I saw at school—from parents to the administration and from students to adults. I saw white kids yelling at their parents and their parents having complete meltdowns over it.

Teachers overlooked a lot of bad behavior because of the district's push to reduce discipline rates. Kids learned they could do whatever they wanted with little to no consequence.

One day in September, there was a child of color, a first-grader, on his way out of the school. He was going off on the student management specialist, the teacher who's supposed to handle behavior problems. Now, culturally, for me, we just don't play that. There are no kids yelling at adults.

So when the student management specialist walked off, I pulled the little boy to the side and said, "What's the problem?" He tried to loud-talk me, and I let him know, "You don't talk to me like that."

I was trying to deal with the student's misbehavior right then and there, but it later became clear the student management specialist didn't appreciate my approach.

He thought I was too harsh, and I thought he was too weak.

I quickly learned that students of color felt that their white peers could get away with more.

Based on my observations, this appeared to be true.

I had a white boy in my class whose behavior was erratic. One day he was acting out. He had this habit of trying to tell me what to do. I remember one of my African-American kids telling me, "Ms. Jones, it doesn't make sense for you to send him to the office, because they're just going to send him back, and he's going to blame it on you."

I was like, "Oh no, no, no." So I sent him there.

It's an honest shame the black boy knew what was going to happen.

The other boy came right back to my classroom.

For the rest of the year, when the white boy had fits, no one would help me.

Jones discovered that parents in Portland had different expectations than Georgia parents. Her unvarnished feedback brought some complaints.

At the beginning of October, I had an issue with one of the biracial kids in my class. He talked a lot.

His father, who was also biracial, came to our open house at the end of September and wanted to know how his son was doing. I told him: "Honestly, he's not doing any work. He talks a lot and he plays a lot, and I'm trying to figure out what we can do to help him."

He then sent the principal an email saying I didn't have anything positive to say about his son. I've never had to sugarcoat in Georgia, but a lot of Portland parents want you to.

The principal gave a lot of weight to parent complaints. She started to question me, and I started to question myself.

"I want you to know that I do know you are doing good work in your room," she emailed me Oct. 21. "I do not want to see it derailed."

It wasn't until I had my conferences that I was told by my other parents, about 18 of them, that they were happy their kids were in my class. I shared that with the principal.

TALKING THE WALK: Erica Jones says she felt overly scrutinized as an African-American woman in Portland Public Schools: "I remember telling the principal, 'You guys in PPS talk about all this stuff that these kids of color go through being in this system, but you’re asking black teachers to come out here and deal with the same discrimination as the students.'” TALKING THE WALK: Erica Jones says she felt overly scrutinized as an African-American woman in Portland Public Schools: “I remember telling the principal, ‘You guys in PPS talk about all this stuff that these kids of color go through being in this system, but you’re asking black teachers to come out here and deal with the same discrimination as the students.’” (Jeoff Davis/WW)

The Portland Association of Teachers union has complained bitterly that Smith hasn't given teachers alternative discipline tools.

Jones says the problem felt even worse for her because of her race and culture.

My principal was Latina, but I felt there was a bias against the way I communicated with students based on my culture as a black woman.

The principal, who was new to Peninsula last year, started having me come to her office regularly. Once she asked me, "Did you call a student a baby?" No, I said. A student was in the hallway acting up and I said, "How old are you? Are you 2? Or are you 9? Because your behavior should reflect that you're 9. Do we need bottles? Do we need pacifiers?"

The student management specialist was listening and went back and told the principal. She was like, "That's considered belittling."

During my interview with the principal, I told her, "I am firm and stern, but students love me." If you get an attitude with me, I will set you straight and keep it moving.

Once I was at the school I remember telling her, "You guys in PPS talk about all this stuff that these kids of color go through being in this system, but you're asking black teachers to come out here and deal with the same discrimination as the students."

The principal told me I was right. "I'm not even going to dispute that," she said.

Portland's a chill town, and people use curse words all the time. But that didn't work for me. I was already stereotyped as aggressive for being a black woman. Using that type of language wouldn't have helped.

I reached out to a mentor teacher, a white man with biracial children. I wanted a different perspective on how I could fit in at PPS. He came to my classroom once a week for an hour or two. He told me that for every negative thing I said, I needed to have three positive things.

One day, I went to a professional development event my mentor organized. I overheard a conversation between two African-American teachers. One was talking about how the principal at her school was upset about how she talked to kids. Then the other teacher said that happened to her, too.

A black student is four times as likely as a white student to face suspension or expulsion in the Portland Public Schools, despite years of effort. Jones says she saw that disparity at Peninsula constantly. We asked her for examples.

One day, a biracial boy in my class was about to fight another boy. A third-grade teacher, who is white, goes and stands in between them. She put her hands up, and he swiped her hand away. I saw him do it. So we wrote him up, and he was suspended for five days.

I thought that was appropriate.

Months later, I saw a different outcome for similarly bad behavior.

A white student, a hefty 10-year-old, was not doing any of his cursive work. "I did this in third grade!" he said. "Well," I said, "you do a lot of things over and over again in school because you're practicing to become better at it."

He became rude, unruly and a distraction to the other children. His behavior was unpredictable. I told him he needed to take his work to the office.

Well, he wouldn't go, and as we waited near the door for someone to come get him, he kept pushing me. You know how if you've ever lost money in a vending machine, you push into it. He kept pushing into me. He was mouthing off at me and acting as if he were going to run out of the room. I was concerned for his safety and mine.

I asked him to stop pushing me and gave him a warning. He backed up about seven steps, went into a karate stance and motioned two fingers at me as if to say, "Bring it on."

A student handed me my cellphone. I called the student management specialist, and he came and got the boy. He asked me to write a description of what happened.

The specialist came back later in the day and said, "Did you feel threatened by the student?" I told him yes. I felt like I was really going to have to defend myself.

He said, "OK, he's definitely going to have some consequences."

The school ended up giving him a one-day in-school suspension.

"The white boy did way more than I did," the biracial boy told me after the incident. "Why is this kid allowed to be here when I got suspended for five days?"

It's hard to say what finally triggered the end of Jones' employment at PPS. Jones says it was the incident with the white student, which continued to snowball. District officials won't say. Whatever it was, by April PPS wanted her gone.

By December, I still had no support for the student behavior problems in my classroom, I was under constant scrutiny, and I was trying to teach third- and fourth-graders multiple subjects at the same time. I was also trying to put on a play for the lower grades to watch. There was a lot going on, and it was very stressful.

And it wasn't like I had a whole lot of friends or family in Portland. I started to have panic attacks in the middle of the night—shortness of breath. I was also having trouble with my sinuses. I was always sick, but I was still trying to come to work.

I was getting ready to go home to Georgia for winter break. I was ready to leave Oregon and not come back.

But I did come back. And that's when my principal said she wanted to talk to me about my teacher evaluation.

When I walked in, the principal let me read over her documents. I thought, "What in the world is this?" She wrote in there that four kids had left the school because of me. She said I was late for meetings. When I disputed that, she said, "Well, I can put in there that you were on your cellphone during meetings instead." She was just looking for something to put in there.

My doctor decided I needed to go see a counselor. I was having a mini-breakdown from—I'm just going to say it—dealing with so many white adults. So they sent me to therapy for it. In Portland, there's therapy for that, and apparently the counselor I had had a good caseload. So there are a lot of people going to it.

I went to the counselor weekly. It did make me feel a whole lot better.

But things at work went from bad to worse. It was clear to me the principal no longer wanted me at her school.

One week in January, she told me she didn't want to put me on a plan of assistance, which is something principals have to do before they can try to fire you. Then, the next week, she did.

At one of our meetings in February, I handed her a resignation letter. I was done. I said I would leave at the end of the year.

Then in April, I got a phone call from the recruiter I had met in Atlanta. Would I reconsider re-signing if she moved me to another school that had more African-American teachers?

She gave me a few days to think. I probably would have stayed, if she had come to ask for my answer herself. Instead, another African-American woman from the central office came April 6. She was callous and rude. I told her, "I'm not interested."

I was already looking for jobs back east.

Two weeks later, on April 20, a guardian of one of my students told me that the white boy who shoved me had made a threat when I was absent. "I'm so glad she's not here," he told other students. "I just want to kill her."

I told PPS I didn't feel safe with him in the class. The student management specialist investigated, and he told me the student was saying it "out of frustration."

On April 21, it was over. The same central office administrator said she was putting me on paid administrative leave until she could terminate me. She said, "It's just not working out." Too many parent complaints. She asked for my badge and my keys and said she was shutting down my PPS email account.

The principal sent out an email to staff, and then she went to the kids. She said Ms. Jones wasn't coming back. She said it was for personal reasons, which wasn't true.

I didn't leave Portland until June. That whole time I was on paid leave. PPS never gave me a written explanation of what I had supposedly done wrong. They were supposed to have done that. It's been months, and the teachers union is still asking for an explanation.

And the little boy who was trying to fight me? He punched the substitute and got a three-day suspension.

I got a job back on the East Coast. I've had only one panic attack since. I can sleep through the night.

I had some great kids in Portland. I appreciate the meaningful connections I made with them and their parents.

But, when I go back and think about my time in PPS, I think I should have reached out to the recruiter more and let her know what was happening. When I did see her those one or two times, she would ask me how things were going.

"Oh, they're fine," I said.

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