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Taking poverty personally

Chenowith Principal Anne Shull, left, visits with reading buddies Jorge Zapian-Ruiz, a kindergarten student, center, and his third grade reading buddy Gabi Gonzalez.

Photo by Mark Gibson
Chenowith Principal Anne Shull, left, visits with reading buddies Jorge Zapian-Ruiz, a kindergarten student, center, and his third grade reading buddy Gabi Gonzalez.



Anne Shull is principal at Chenowith Elementary, where more students live in poverty than at any school in the district.

She can relate to her students perhaps more than they realize.

“I grew up in north Portland. If anybody is familiar with north Portland, it is the ghetto, it is the ‘hood: ‘No-Po.’ I grew up in poverty,” Shull said.

Her parents had high school educations. Her family of five lived in a house with fewer than 800 square feet.

“I know exactly what it’s like to have one vehicle, that may or may not have worked, depending if something broke,” she said. “I remember standing in line for milk, cheese and bread with my mom.” They walked to get there, because they didn’t have a vehicle.

“I was poor, and being poor is not a bad thing. It’s when you have poverty with trauma that it creates the problems,” she said.

Her family was stable and she didn’t live with domestic violence or abuse. There was, however, the stress of little money. She remembers her dad’s shoes were held together with duct tape.

But her parents loved her and stressed to her that she needed to do her homework, respect people, and always do her best. They told her she could do anything she set her mind to.

Shull became the first person in her family to go to college, and she paid her own way. After she finished grad school, her younger sister and mother both went to college and now both are teachers.

Shull taught in Portland, at St. Mary’s Academy, and in Hood River before joining North Wasco County School District 21 in 2009 as talented and gifted coordinator and director of a program that implemented engineering and robotics programs in the district.

She was an administrator at the high school and TAG coordinator before becoming principal at Chenowith in 2012.

When Shull’s parents went to her school, officials managed to remind them of the barriers of their social class. “You avoid situations where people make you feel bad about yourself.”

When Shull took the job as principal four years ago, “I recognized why parents may be intimidated to get involved. Or if you’ve had a negative school experience as a child, that’s in the back of your mind.”

“I learned from my own background, if you make people feel bad about themselves, they’re not gonna hang out with you. Everybody has their insecurities, so I just try to figure out what are the barriers and how can we work around those?”

That’s why when she calls parents when a kid is in trouble, she always makes a point of noting something good about the child.

She also understands from personal experience that school behavior and home behavior might have to be different, just for survival.

She went to school in the 1990s, when the notorious Crips and Bloods gangs were prevalent in North Portland. She walked home from school, and as a freshman, soon two senior boys — one Crips, one Bloods — began walking with her, since they were all headed in the same direction.

Her dad was worried enough to take a day off of work to talk to the boys directly about why they were doing that.

He told them his concerns about his daughter: “’I don’t want her caught in the crossfire.’”

But they explained to him, “’Well, sir, she actually is keeping us safe,’” Shull recounted. The boys had no option but to join a gang, but with her around — a “civilian,” — “no one will bother us,” the boys told her dad.

“There was no problems, at all,” she recounted. “But that’s the thing: They were in school to get educated, but they also needed to be able to maintain the status and skills that they had in order to survive in their home environment. Sometimes in that home environment you need to use physical force to protect what’s yours or use a higher voice to be heard over the chaos.”

That can translate, in the classroom, to a child thinking, “’You bugged me, I’m going to punch you.’ That’s survival at home. Here, that gets you in trouble.”

And as for her own family, she reports that her parents, who have been married for 42 years, now live in a more “tony” part of Portland.



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