"I’m not weird, but I’m taking you to the bathroom,” says Tamala Newsome. The Rosa Parks Elementary principal is eager to show off the shower and washer-dryer in the bathroom just off the front office lobby. Since Rosa Parks opened in 2006, serving the most economically challenged and one of the most ethnically diverse communities in Portland Public Schools, the shower and laundry have seen use not only from youngsters with the occasional accident but from students in precarious housing situations who don’t always have access to running water. Newsome is proud of her shower, and proud of the tiny toilets by the kindergarten classrooms. She suggests they be part of the tour, too: “I know you’ve seen some before, but you didn’t see mine.”
If Newsome sounds a little extra connected to her school’s plumbing, there’s a reason. More than half of PPS principals have been in their current position fewer than three years. Newsome has been principal in the same North Portland community for two decades, since 1998, when she switched from teacher to principal at Rosa Parks’s precursor, John Ball Elementary. (She will retire at the end of this school year.) When Columbia Villa public housing was demolished in the early 2000s and New Columbia was built in its place, a sliver of land was set aside for a new school to replace Ball, to be planned in partnership with the city housing authority as well as the Boys & Girls Club and Portland Parks & Recreation, whose nearby facilities are used by the school. Rosa Parks continues to be “a living, breathing partnership,” Newsome says. “It doesn’t mean we don’t sit down and have to tweak things, but overall the success of the shared space is because we were at the table two years before the doors ever opened.”
From the primary-color “neighborhood” classroom groupings to the low interior windows that give sightlines from her desk to the front hallway and the library, she knows they got a lot of things right, but the Family Resource Room is her “pride and joy.” When an architect suggested two of the large room’s walls be floor-to-ceiling glass, though, she initially balked: “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know how this is going to work. The fingerprints?!’” As soon as the school opened, she knew it had been the right choice. “When kids walk by, they might look up, they might see their grandparents, they might see their parents, they may see a neighbor who lives on the street, a friend, an auntie,” she says. “It puts our families where I believe they belong, in the heart of the school.”
The connection is one she missed when she was a PPS student in the 1970s. “I actually came along during the busing years,” she says, and then pauses. “And I don’t have a whole lot positive to say about that experience.... All you really were doing was just taking black kids and dumping them in schools” in small numbers, she remembers. Newsome grew up off of NE Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) but went to school on the west side: Hayhurst, Robert Gray, and Wilson High. She had some good friends and supportive teachers there, “but at the end of the day, it took us out of our community. There are kids I should know that I don’t know.”
“I know we’ve worked hard on race and understanding race, and I know a lot of people who are white who have really worked on understanding how their privilege has given them opportunity,” says Newsome. “I think the work we’ve done at Portland Public Schools has helped many of us be able to appreciate and look at other perspectives. But the work has to continue, because we’re not there yet.”
That continuing work involves “leveling the playing field,” an idea often held out as a vague, lofty goal but one Newsome attacks with specifics—not just with showers and resource centers but with violins (every Rosa Parks kindergartner and first grader takes violin), swim lessons (part of third through fifth grade PE), and even lacrosse sticks, via a partnership with the nonprofit Lacrosse for All and what Newsome calls a “progressive” PE teacher. Her pursuit of partnerships helped earn her a national Milken Educator Award, considered “the Oscars of teaching,” in 2004.
“When we level the playing field, and we make things accessible to all students—which is what equity is—man, you get some amazing results,” Newsome says, holding up a cellphone video of a recent student orchestra performance. “We’re talking about changing kids’ lives. It’s not about the music. The music is a vehicle. But the social justice is changing lives and giving kids opportunities to break some cycles,” she says. “Music or swimming or lacrosse or your writing ability or your math skills, whatever you got going on, we just need to develop that so it can open doors for you, and make sure our kids get the opportunity that they deserve.”