Commissioners as Principals for Almost a Day

October 28, 2016

Commissioner Diane McKeel chats with a student before class at Lynch Meadows Elementary

Multnomah County Commissioners know a thing or two about running large organizations that provide critical services for children and families.

That may be why they embraced “Principal for Almost a Day” an annual event that gives community leaders a chance to shadow school principals across the county.

Commissioners Diane McKeel, Loretta Smith and Chair Deborah Kafoury, as well as Kimberly Melton, education policy advisor for the Chair, and Eric Zimmerman, chief of staff for Commissioner McKeel, took part this year. All Hands Raised organized the effort which brings nearly 100 community members into the schools.

Commissioner Loretta Smith gives a high five during class at Cesar Chavez Elementary
Commissioner Loretta Smith gives a high five during class at Cesar Chavez Elementary

For 16 years, community leaders have joined school leaders from the morning bell through lunchtime to spend time with students, faculty, teachers and parents.

McKeel has been to a different school each year of her eight years in office. This year she spent time with Karen Weinert, principal at Lynch Meadows Elementary.

But it’s always the same thing that inspires her.

“In every school I’ve been in, the principal and the teachers are there to greet kids. They’re respectful, they’re interested, they build relationships,” Commissioner McKeel said. She’s awestruck, for example, by the ability of a principal to remember the names of as many as a 1,000 children.

And she watches kids respond to that caring with hugs and high fives. When Weinert softly reminds a fifth grader to “use your walking feet,” he responds with the good natured eye-rolling reserved for favored adults.

For county leaders, it’s also chance to see the impact of more than $18 million the Board invests in the SUN Service System. That money is focused on three key areas:

  • Early Learning Supports that include early kindergarten transition, register for school by June and parent engagement.

  • Family Stability support: that includes the school-based emergency food pantries and energy assistance.

  • Youth and Family Advocacy that include attendance case management, the SUN Youth Substance Abuse and Prevention program and Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Services.

Last year, 29,967 people accessed SUN programs, including 995 students enrolled in the attendance case management program. Families also benefited, with 6,232 households tapping into the emergency food pantries and 21,169 receiving energy assistance.

Commissioner Smith said she saw those dollars at work when she arrived at Cesar Chavez Elementary, where kids got breakfast before heading off to class, where second-graders, some who didn’t have computers at home, clacked away on laptops during class.

“I was so inspired to see the access to a great education, technology, and people who really care about them,” she said. “It reinforces my belief that we need to continue to support SUN Schools, that they’re working to support our families.”

Chair Deborah Kafoury jokes with staff and students in study hall at Rosemary Anderson High School
Chair Deborah Kafoury jokes with staff and students in study hall at Rosemary Anderson High School

Jeanie-Marie Price, vice-president of communications with All Hands Raised, said often elected officials visit schools to announcea new program or give a speech. They’re more likely to hear from students earning awards than those struggling just to get by. And that’s why this is so important.

“For leaders who don’t spend a lot of time in school, they’re blown away by what they learn,” said Price. “It doesn’t matter what your role is, you have a part to play. It’s our future on the line. If we continue to fail kids of color and kids living in poverty, that future is not going to be very bright.”

This is a rare chance for more intimate conversations and honest confrontations, such as the student at Rosemary Anderson High School who asked Chair Kafoury why there weren’t many services to help teens addicted to drugs.

“That’s something I need to know,” Kafoury said.  

Or the young woman who said she visits a county clinic for her health services. Or the teen who stopped by Principal for Almost a Day who has just four months to stay in a shelter with her baby before they have to find somewhere else to go.

“The challenges she was facing seemed overwhelming, yet she was really positive,” Kafoury said. “You really get a glimpse into people’s lives. It absolutely changes your perception.”