Superintendent's Notebook: A West End success story at Portland's Reiche Elementary School

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Schools used to use parent volunteers mainly for tasks such as baking cupcakes, making bulletin boards or raising money. Parents felt useful, teachers appreciated the help, principals were happy and all was well with the world.

Today, smart principals and teachers are tapping into the depth of parents’ knowledge about their own children. Successful schools need parents’ help with fundraisers, to be sure. But more importantly, we need them as partners in their child’s education. We know from research done by such prestigious institutions as Johns Hopkins University that parents engaged in their child’s learning help the child succeed academically.

A once-struggling Portland school has transformed itself into a success story through the efforts of parents, staff and administration. Reiche Elementary School exemplifies what we can accomplish when we work as a community to improve the education of our children.

I recently spent several hours with Reiche parents who filled me in about the recent history of the school. Located in the West End, Reiche was built in the mid-1970s as a “state-of-the-art” open school building. More than 70 percent of students fall below the federal poverty line. The school draws many new immigrants as well as some children from middle-class and upper-income families.

When the school opened, everyone hailed it as a radical departure from the past and a major breakthrough in the war on poverty. The ribbon was cut, pictures were taken, city and school leadership were proud of what they did for one of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods.

Opening a school is an event. Running a school is a commitment. Like many Portland schools, Reiche suffered over the years from inadequate maintenance. The building’s needs mounted to the point that the entry and some windows leaked anytime it rained.

In addition to the physical decay, staff morale was low and student test scores were horrible. What went wrong? Tough budget cycles seemed to never place the city’s elementary schools as a priority.

Reiche’s open design, with no permanent walls, also created problems. Imagine teaching in an environment where 700 children are talking at once, teachers are talking over each other and each child who goes to the library or the bathroom is a distraction.

Just 25 years after Reiche opened, city officials talked about tearing it down. An application was made to the state to do just that – and the school fell just one step away from demolition.

Within the last five years, this inner city school has been resurrected. Today, Reiche is an academic success story and the pride is back.

What made the difference?

Reiche parents worked with the staff and Principal Marcia Gendron to create a plan for turning the school around. Parents recognized that if they wanted a vibrant, engaging school, they would have to make it happen in collaboration with the staff.

Starting with small steps, parents proved themselves as worthy advocates and hard workers. They pushed, pulled and pleaded. They applied for grants, signed up volunteers and involved community leaders in their successes. The parents estimate that more than $500,000 in funds and services have been invested in Reiche over the past five years.

As the building improved, so did teacher morale and the relationship with these hard-working parents. Principal Gendron provided professional development for her staff that focused on best teaching practices. As teaching practices improved, test scores rose.

Reiche demonstrates how parents can be meaningful partners in school change. The parents were doing far more than bulletin boards and fundraisers; they were an essential part of the school’s success.

Do we want all Portland Public School parents engaged in a meaningful partnership with our schools? You betcha.

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jamesmorse.JPGJames C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. He can be reached at, and you can follow him @jamesmorsesr on Twitter.