[October 6, 2023]
In July, Portland Public Schools announced the appointment of a new principal at Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School in Hillsdale. Ayesha Jehan Coning moves up from her position as Vice Principal at Wells to take over from former principal Filip Hristić as he leaves after four years at the helm for a post at district headquarters as Senior Director of High School Core Academics.
In a recent conversation, Coning talked about how excited she is to step into the job of principal. "I"m super honored to have landed my dream job being principal in the community I live in and the school that my own children graduated from," she said.
Enrollment at Wells is close to 1700 students this fall, the highest in at least 15 years. The increase comes at a time when Portland's population is declining, as is enrollment at PPS's other high schools.
Coning attributes the enrollment growth to a few things.
Wells had the highest graduation rate in PPS in 2022, and Coning expects that once the tabulations are completed, it will have highest rate again for 2023. She also suspects that the name change from Woodrow Wilson to Ida B. Wells may have had an impact. "The renaming of our school has come with a lot of positive energy, and the overall school climate is really positive, welcoming and supportive," she said.
Another area generating positive energy, Coning says, is the planning process for replacing the Wells building. Learn more about that here.
Targeted Changes Initiated at Wells Are Benefitting All Students
Several new school systems introduced to increase engagement of historically underserved students will benefit everyone, said Coning. "Historically underserved is the umbrella term that refers to students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners and the LGBTQ student population," she explained.
PPS has had an "off and away" cell phone policy in place for several years. This year, Coning and the Wells administration took it a step further, implementing a new policy requiring that all students' cell phones be placed in a dedicated "cell phone caddy" at the beginning of each class period. Students are not allowed to remove the phones at any point during class, even when they leave the classroom to go to the bathroom. Coning says this change has been welcomed wholeheartedly not just by parents and staff, but by students as well, and that the number of students in the hallways during class time has dropped significantly.
Another strategy to increase student engagement is moving "flex" time, a 40-minute chunk of time for students to get extra help from teachers or to study. Flex time is now in the morning just after the first class period, rather than at the end of the school day. The goal is to keep students on campus during school hours and to encourage them to use this time productively.
The flex-time move is accompanied by new enforcement of existing "closed campus" status. With the exception of lunchtime, students are required to have parent permission to leave campus. Campus safety personnel and administrators have been stationed at the doors during flex time since the beginning of the school year to remind students of this policy.
PPS Has Enhanced Security Measures
A change from the PPS superintendent now requires high school students to wear ID lanyards at all times while on campus. New security cameras have been installed at school entrances to allow staff to identify visitors before they enter the building. And the district has increased the number of security staff (called "campus safety associates", or "CSA's") at all high school campuses to four this year. This is up from three at Wells last year and two in the years before that.
CSA's activities are restricted to PPS property, so they are not allowed to go onto the Hillsdale Food Park, which sits on private property adjacent to the north Wells parking lot. They monitor student behavior from the PPS property, however, and PPS administrators are a regular lunch-time presence at the Food Park. Coning acknowledged that there have been at least two student fights at the Food Park this year, but said that she is working closely with park management to provide a safe space for students and the community to enjoy their lunch.
In December, additional cameras will be installed all around the exterior, not just at the primary entrances. Said Coning, "This is the world we live in and hopefully it will prevent some vandalism and thefts and other 'naughty' behaviors."
Community members can use the SafeOregon tip line (www.safeoregon.com, 844-472-3367) to anonymously report student behavior or safety concerns. Coning encourages anyone reporting to provide as much detail as possible. "People often don’t provide enough information," she said, "and it’s hard for school staff to follow up."
In an effort led by Wells math teacher and women's tennis coach Barry Daigle in 2021, the Wells tennis courts have been converted to pickleball use.
Acknowledging that the courts were not large enough to accomodate tennis team practice, Daigle and former principal Hristić wanted to see the courts gets more use, and indeed they have. The courts have seen a tremendous amount of community use during the summer and outside of school hours since being retooled for pickleball.
Because of their position adjacent to a wing of classrooms and the distraction of noise coming from the courts, however, the pickleball courts are closed to the public while school is in session.
Use of the track is also limited to times when school is not in session to accommodate PE classes. Coning reminds non-school groups who want to use the fields and track that they need to reserve ahead of time with PPS Civic Use of Buildings, similar to Portland Parks and Recreation facilities.
Coning invites families with 8th-graders to the upcoming Ida B. Wells Guardian Showcase on December 5, from 6-8pm. Staff and students will be on hand to showcase school offerings with a school-wide open house and elective fair.
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