Principal Vivian Orlen will step down from her job at Grant High School and move back to New York City, Grant Magazine has learned.
Orlen is returning to where she started her career in education and will be working for the New York City Public schools. She will serve as an achievement coach, working specifically with principals who have one or two years of experience. This ends her three-year tenure at Portland’s largest high school.
Orlen said the decision to leave Grant has been difficult. “I really love being the principal at Grant,” she said in an interview Thursday night as she prepared to send out a message to the school community.
“I really have built strong relationships and friendships here,” she said. “Leaving those is what makes the leaving hard.”
Orlen came to Portland three years ago when both she and her husband, Alan Dichter, took new jobs in the area. Dichter worked for Portland Public Schools administration, helping with the development of small high school programs. Orlen was named principal of Grant after long-time principal Toni Hunter stepped down and interim Joseph Malone decided he was ready to leave.
From the day Orlen arrived, Grant was in for a change. She openly questioned some of Grant’s longtime social and academic traditions, drawing criticism from all corners. In fact, it’s safe to say that Orlen ruffled some feathers in her first year.
Critics complained that she was too quick to make changes. Mostly, that came from parents with access who were concerned that some of the changes in the school’s approach to academics would make the school a less attractive place for their top-performing students.
But Orlen moved ahead, undaunted. She reduced the number of AP classes – a move that drew howls of protest. And she added credit-recovery classes and other curriculum designed to help struggling students. The attraction of AP, she said, by some families came at the expense of others.
Grant seniors at the time became enraged when Toga Day, a longstanding tradition that had lost focus over the years, was restructured. Orlen knew she had to change the tradition when she saw that seniors were showing up to school intoxicated and unruly. She recalled stories of freshmen at the time feeling threatened.
Orlen ended off-campus lunch for freshmen to increase the feeling of community among the younger students. She didn’t budge on the new policy until the resources for supervision during lunch hour fell short.
Orlen, though, never wavered when controversy came knocking. In January 2012, a hazing incident involving the boys junior varsity basketball team occurred, causing an uproar about the way coaches handled their teams.
Orlen moved quickly, overhauling the Grant athletics department. She pushed out both the men’s and women’s basketball coaches. She also named Diallo Lewis and Matt Kabza as co-athletic directors. And she shuffled track coaches to improve the teams and pledged to set a new standard for athletics.
In 2012, Orlen was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy, but never lost touch with the school. And while there was some controversy during her time, Orlen gained a track record for pushing her signature line: We need to be a school that helps all students.
“My greatest struggle initially was working in a school that clearly served some kids very well but that it wasn’t serving all kids well,” Orlen said in Thursday’s interview. “If we truly want to be a school of excellence, then you have to make sure you’re serving all kids.”
Orlen told Grant staff on Thursday afternoon that she was leaving. Many were shocked by her departure and saddened that she won’t be at Grant anymore.
John Eisemann, Grant’s first-year choir director, described Orlen as a “wonderful friend and administrator.”
“She has given me what I strive to give my students every day – knowledge, confidence and the ability to succeed in any situation,” Eisemann said. “She has been truly inspirational. I will miss her immensely and will never forget her giving me a chance to be a part of this community.”
Madeline Kokes, the career coordinator in the College and Career Center, sees Orlen as a “visionary guru.” She said Orlen was a huge proponent of getting students into the community from day one.
“I am the only career coordinator in the district that is full time, and I think that really shows her belief in the power of exploration for students,” Kokes said. “She made each student feel like they were important and welcome and had a place at the school.”
Others complimented Orlen for helping the school do more with fewer resources. PTA President Monique McClean said Orlen had a unique way of operating.
“She has empowered students, parents and teachers and with that we have been able to work together and do some amazing things in financially restricted times,” McClean said.
McClean said Orlen’s accessibility was one of the keys to their success. She says the principal always made time to talk with parents, meeting monthly with the PTA, Boosters, Foundation, and Site Council, and keeping her door open to opinions. “It helped us all to work together,” McClean said.
During her tenure, Orlen increased the college credit choices offered to students, revamped the College and Career Center, and championed low-performing students by adding credit recovery and education enhancement classes. Orlen pushed school for all students, not just a few select high achievers.
For eighth graders rising into Grant, Orlen implemented a math placement test to help establish where students belonged. Parents say the change was a helpful reality check for students who would’ve otherwise been misplaced in math classes.
After 10 years of efforts by staff, administrators, parents and community members, Orlen set the Grant Fields Project rolling, and things moved fast. Grant’s brand new track and athletic field will be unveiled in September.
Grant’s vice principal of curriculum Kristyn Westphal, who Orlen hired last year, said while her boss brought change to the school, she also brought the community together.
“Personally, it’s a loss for me but it’s also a loss for the school,” Westphal said. “I think that when you have a strong leader that has created forward momentum, it’s difficult to lose that person. I have learned a lot from her.”
The loss of Orlen comes at a critical time. In the next few years, Grant will have to close for renovation as part of the recent school bond improvement measure voters passed last year. As the school’s population continues to change, the school will need a strong leader who can continue the momentum that Orlen has set in motion.
English teacher Mary Rodeback points towards the renovation of the school and a change in graduation requirements as challenges for the new principal. “It’s rigorous and its daunting, we need some really focused, excellent leadership to help us prepare.”
Vonda Persijn, parent of rising senior Jana Persijn, appreciates how Orlen has made an effort to listen to parents and students, and thinks the new principal “needs to be open-minded, and I think they need to be a good listener as she has been…I think that is good momentum and we have to keep it going.”
It’s unclear who Portland Superintendent Carole Smith will pick to lead the school. No timeline has been determined for when Orlen will be replaced.