Students Return to a New System of School, and a Changed School Administration


Carlie Weigel

“The type of principal I want to be is somebody who’s really involved in learning and in the classroom,” Interim Principal Ms. Alanna O’Brien said.

Carlie Weigel, Editor in Chief

While students spent this summer away from academics and other school-related activities, it was a busy time for the La Salle administrative team, as they worked to establish a safe and effective learning system suitable for a school year in which the coronavirus continues to create complications.

During the summer, roles within the administrative team also shifted significantly, with former Principal and President Mr. Andrew Kuffner stepping into just the President role and Vice Principal of Curriculum and Professional Development Ms. Alanna O’Brien taking on the title of Interim Principal. In addition, former Vice Principal of Academics Mr. Mario De Ieso departed from La Salle.

This year will be Ms. O’Brien’s 25th year at the school and eighth as an administrator. Despite finding it “a little daunting to take on the role of principal in a… [COVID-19] situation,” she said, she is looking forward to serving the community in her new position.

“I got into school administration because I love the classroom and I love learning and I love supporting teachers,” she said. “The staff that I get to work with and the teachers that I’m working with are all so committed to the jobs that they’re doing that it just felt like it was the right thing to do.”

With this new role, Ms. O’Brien’s “focus is on making school the best it can be given our reality of being online and being in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “I feel like helping teachers do the best job that they can do is my main responsibility because that, in turn, supports the students, which is the reason we’re all here.”

In addition to this, Ms. O’Brien wants to help students process the world that they are living in by responding to calls for equity and racial justice.

In an email announcing the change, Mr. Kuffner told the community that after two years, “serving as both La Salle’s President and Principal has diminished my efficacy in either role,” he said. As a result and with support from the Board of Trustees, he decided to return to the original leadership structure in which two different people would occupy those positions.

“To be perfectly honest, there is a bit of a sense of relief,” he said. “The breadth of what [I was] feeling responsible for, I feel lucky to be able to entrust a good portion of that as Principal to Ms. O’Brien… There’s a recognition that I’m taking one further step away from the students, where my heart has always been… [but] I know it is serving the community in a different way.”

In part, Mr. Kuffner also credited his decision to the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think the craziness brought on by [COVID-19] and distance learning is in one way accelerating the changes in education,” he said. “It is a recognition of the rapid change… We need to be ahead of the curve and really responding well to not just what’s in front of us, but what opportunities might come out of this.”

In his email to the community, Mr. Kuffner said, “serving as La Salle Prep’s President [and] Principal for the past two years has been rewarding and challenging.”

“I have witnessed the amazing work of La Salle’s caring counselors, inspirational teachers, committed advancement staff, exceptional supporters, outstanding coaches, and excellent directors,” he continued. “I also have been humbled by parents’ commitment to their children’s education, and benefactors’ dedication to our Lasallian and Catholic mission.”

For now, Mr. Kuffner will be supporting Ms. O’Brien with getting the school year started successfully, but as he moves toward directing his attention solely to his role as President, he anticipates “having the time to really stand at that 10,000-foot view and work with the amazing professionals that are in the school to help guide and direct the whole school towards strategic initiatives,” he said.

Despite the changes that occurred within the administrative team near the end of the summer, Mr. Kuffner, Ms. O’Brien, Mr. Devine, Mr. De Ieso, and Athletic Director Mr. Chris George, met consistently throughout the summer to establish the back-to-school plan that students and staff are currently following, as well as to develop plans for a hybrid learning model that the school will move to when conditions allow.

This group also worked alongside a task force that consisted of teachers and other staff members who were able to support the planning process in various ways, including by facilitating several surveys and focus group meetings. This allowed teachers, students, and parents to provide feedback on their experiences with online learning in the spring, and to give input about their preferences for this school year.

With over 6.5 million coronavirus cases in the United States and almost 30,000 in Oregon alone, the question of when on-campus learning will be safe persists. As of right now, Governor Kate Brown has declared it unsafe, unless the county the school is located in has less than a five percent positivity rate and only 10 cases per 100,000 people, both for three consecutive weeks. Drawing students from throughout the Portland area, La Salle must meet these metrics in two counties: Multnomah and Clackamas.

After last school year ended, those involved in the planning process focused most of their time on organizing a hybrid system that would allow for part-time in-person learning. However, after receiving this guidance from the Governor, the team began to adjust last year’s online mode to better support students.

“I thought the spring was pretty tough on kids,” Ms. O’Brien said. “While the health focus is definitely on vulnerable populations and elderly individuals… I think the people whose lives and lifestyles have radically changed the most are young people… I think there is a lot of pressure on young people as they try and manage this.”

In terms of digital learning, the administrative team wants to ensure that the overall experience is more comparable to what school was like prior to the pandemic.

“There are going to be some shifts in place from the spring to the fall just to make sure that curriculum doesn’t get watered down or that units don’t get eliminated, [and] so that kids can feel ready for college,” Ms. O’Brien said. “At the same time, we also want to layer on whatever type of social [and] emotional health needs kids have, and we want to make sure that kids have opportunities when possible to get on campus, which we didn’t have in the spring.”

The administrative team ultimately decided on a system that requires students to attend synchronous 80-minute Zoom classes four days a week. On Wednesdays, when students aren’t synchronously learning, they will complete assignments on their own time to allow for more support, development, and collaboration whether that be between teachers, classmates, clubs, or other school-affiliated groups.

“We recognized that there is a big difference between learning at home for a few days and sustaining that for a few months,” Mr. Devine said. “As we planned for this year, knowing that it will likely be a blend of learning at home and learning on campus and that we will need to use a hybrid model, we felt confident that synchronous learning needed to be a foundation of our model.”

Ms. O’Brien said that conducting classes in better alignment with the bell schedule allows teachers to take attendance, check-in with students, and provide direction each period.

“The goal is not to have kids on Zoom all day,” she said. “That would probably be pretty torturous, but it is to provide some person-to-person connection and clear instructions and overview… [We’re] just trying to facilitate learning that is more social and more engaging and a little bit more structured… We got a pretty significant amount of feedback that more structure and more connection would’ve been beneficial [last year].”

Mr. Kuffner echoed her thoughts.

“Those that struggled the most, struggled with the structure and not being able to really access teachers as readily as needed,” he said. “The idea of having more synchronous [learning] is just more touch points… The other thing we heard was kids wanted to interact with each other, so Zoom allows for breakout groups and all these types of things.”

Ms. O’Brien thinks that online learning this year will better meet the needs of most students.

“The same thing doesn’t work for all people,” she said. “We did hear a lot of people wanted more structure and more connection, [and] a number of kids probably liked the independence that came from the spring… It’s hard because there’s not a one size fits all. [We] have to… make decisions about what’s going to be best for the goals of the academic program and the feedback we got.”

To ensure that students meet academic standards, the school leadership group wanted to introduce this more complex system.

“[Last spring] it almost had this feeling like school’s kind of optional and we definitely want to kind of try and move back towards a little more rigor [and] a little more structure,” Ms. O’Brien said. “What I didn’t want to negotiate on as we started the fall semester was that expectations would be lightened… The end goal is that kids are learning the content and the skills that they need to be successful at the next level.”

Looking ahead, many are wondering whether they will be able to return to campus. The administrative team remains hopeful that Multnomah and Clackamas county will meet the metrics required to do so in the near future.

“I pray that we do not do online school all year,” Ms. O’Brien said. “It is not what I want… I’m choosing to remain optimistic… My hope would be that we could be back on campus by second semester and I feel like that is a reasonable hope right now.”

Similarly, Mr. Devine said, “we definitely expect to return to school sometime this school year… I look at those metrics every day and pay close attention to the trends so that we can anticipate a return to school… We are working hard in the interim to prepare for a return to campus with plans in place for classroom design, hallway adjustments and lunchtime seating.”

If the community is eventually able to return to on-campus learning, Mr. Kuffner said that the school will be prepared with a comprehensive safety plan. Additionally, the school’s ventilation system has been evaluated by a professional to allow for maximum outside airflow throughout the building, and students, teachers, and other staff members will be required to complete digital wellness checks every day through SchoolPass.

“It’s not fun to tell high school kids to not stand within six feet of each other and to wear masks, but we would do it if we could,” Ms. O’Brien said. Until then, she is looking for opportunities that would allow for the community to safely gather together.

“[I’m] trying to figure out how we can best take advantage of the numbers of students who are allowed to be in the building on a given week so that we can bring in small groups of kids,” she said. “We’re talking about everything from having a teacher host a lunch outside with 10 kids once a week to the theater production… I know there’s conversations around athletics and what that could look like… [We’re] trying to kind of align the guidelines with being creative so that kids can actually see each other in-person and not just on the screen.”

No matter what the outcome of this school year turns out to be, Mr. Devine said, “our main priority is to support the learning and the wellbeing of our students. We want to provide the best possible learning experience for students with innovative and creative uses of technology and learning tools. [Our] student life team, our counselors, our arts and athletics departments are all working hard to pivot and provide [a] unique and memorable experience for students that will be different from what we all expected but hopefully just as fulfilling.”