‘Our Kids Can Achieve’
Retiring school leader on defying expectations
Zachary Senn | 7/11/2017, 4:45 p.m.
One of Portland’s most influential black educators has retired. Lolenzo Poe dedicated the past 40 years of his career to making public education in Portland more equitable. He says that he plans to continue to advocate for academic accessibility for people of color and the disadvantaged in his retirement.
Poe has been one of the region’s defining figures in education. As someone who attended Jefferson High School in his youth, he says that he has first-hand knowledge of racial disparities in Portland Public Schools. Low expectations for students of color were prevalent in the district at the time of his attendance and remain for too many people today, he says.
I was a student who, quite honestly, very few people believed in,” Poe told the Portland Observer. “They thought that I wouldn’t amount to much.”
With his potential untapped, Poe said that his grades faltered at Jefferson. A select few educators, however, understood his capabilities, and he obtained entrance to Oregon State University.
“My counselors told me that it was probably for the best if I thought about entering the military,” said Poe. “At that time, there was the war in Vietnam. That didn’t seem like an attractive alternative to me.”
After his college admission, Poe went on to earn both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from OSU. He says that despite entering the university with a low grade-point average, his grades flourished once he began his studies at OSU.
After working out of state in the private sector, Poe returned to Portland and began a 32-year stretch at Multnomah County, where he was later appointed by then-County Commissioner Ted Wheeler to serve as the county’s equity director. It was in this capacity, he says, that he began to more closely examine the racial disparities in Portland’s educational systems.
“There continued to be a gap between the educational outcomes of African Americans and white students,” said Poe. “I really wanted to see that change.”
Poe successfully ran for a position on the Portland School Board, and served as a board member from 2002 through 2005. He says that his knowledge of the achievement gap between white students and students of color motivated his campaign.
“We had to come to the district and demand that they pay attention to the gap,” Poe said. “There were a number of schools, primarily where African Americans were attending, that required immediate attention and resources.”
Following his tenure on the school board, Poe was brought on as a staff member at the district. Since 2009, he has worked as the Chief Equity and Diversity Officer for PPS. He developed the Racial Equity Plan, which he says was one of the first educational equity plans to specifically target racial disparities in the nation.
He says that there have been measurable improvements in Portland’s educational achievement gap since the plan was approved in 2010. Among other things, the plan’s implementation has reduced the disproportionate expulsion rates of students of color and boosted the graduation rates at schools with higher minority populations.