Porter Elementary School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“I had to stop reading. It was like looking at a scary movie where it gets so bad you have to turn away,” said Yvette Porter-Moore of our recent story documenting significant problems at Porter Elementary School. Porter-Moore is the daughter of Walter J. Porter, the namesake of Porter Elementary.

“It just hurt my heart. Just the way the children are being treated and not taken care of,” she said.

Some children at Porter feel unsafe at school, and others have struggled to get services they should be legally entitled to receive. Porter-Moore said the families’ experiences would have her father – who was a legendary community leader and education worker – “turning in his grave.”

Walter Porter and his daughter, Yvette Porter-Moore / Photo courtesy of Yvette Porter-Moore

Porter, formerly Kennedy Elementary, is one of many schools across the country that has struggled for decades to play its part in evening the odds for children born into poverty. Even the story of how the school came to be called Porter is rooted in its difficulty to thrive.

Back in the mid-2000s, San Diego Unified added a second campus to what was then Kennedy Elementary. Originally, only the new campus was slated to be called Porter, but then plans changed, Porter-Moore told me. Kennedy was performing poorly at the time and in danger of being taken over by the state, so officials renamed the whole campus in an effort to buy more time, she said.

The story is repeating again with Porter recently named to the state’s list of poorest-performing schools.

Walter Porter had already passed away when officials decided to name an elementary school after him. But his story, too, began with the reality of a person’s possibilities being limited by the lack of a meaningful education, Porter-Moore said.

Porter was born to a family of sharecroppers in the town of Lake Providence in one of the poorest parishes of Louisiana in 1927, his daughter said. His family essentially worked on a plantation and the young Porter had dim possibilities for an education. When he was 5 years old, his mother ran away with him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he would at least be able to go to school.

Porter was ambitious, restless and larger than life.

He was the captain of his high school football team. He moved to Los Angeles and became a ventriloquist and stand-up comedian. He emceed shows for Red Foxx and Ella Fitzgerald, his daughter said. Porter was also constantly experimenting with new business ventures.

Walter Porter, 12, at his first job / Photo courtesy of Yvette Porter-Moore

He owned a donut shop, a janitorial services company and sold hula-hoops at different times. But Porter’s wife Betty Mae Porter didn’t like his frenetic business sense. She pushed him to go back to school and earn his doctorate. Afterward, Porter worked at an adult school in Lincoln Park – the same neighborhood where Porter Elementary is located today – and ultimately became dean of student services in the San Diego Community College District.

He was fun. Growing up, Porter-Moore said he would jump out of closets to surprise her and her brother with one of his ventriloquism dolls.

But he was also indispensable. He was a founding member of the Rotary Club of Southeast San Diego, president of the local NAACP and served on the board of the Starlight Bowl for many years – helping save it from closure more than once, his daughter said.

Before he died in 2001, Porter had a stroke. Porter-Moore would come to his house and play jazz records and sing. She’d put a bongo drum on his bed and he would tap along with one hand, even though he could no longer speak.

After she read the article detailing Porter Elementary’s struggles, Porter-Moore visited the campus.

“The school was filthy,” she said. “I felt like I needed a broom and a dustpan to get started, because it looked as bad as I was reading.” Porter-Moore started a foundation to help raise money for the school and foster community engagement around 2005. But the foundation gradually fell apart.

“I truly want to be part of the solution, and by my inactivity, I feel that I am a part of the problem,” Porter-Moore wrote to me.

Self-judgment is always the harshest. Porter-Moore is now pushing to get the foundation working again and start a conversation with district leaders and community members about how to heal Porter Elementary.

“I feel a sense of responsibility,” she said.

If this regeneration of Porter is going to be more successful than others, community members will have to pressure local politicians. Last time Porter was seriously struggling, harsh federal regulations under the No Child Left Behind law automatically triggered drastic reorganizations of schools that didn’t perform well.

School board trustees have no one but themselves and the community to hold them accountable this time around.

School Board Sticks With Wait-Hours-to-Comment Policy

Hoping you wouldn’t have to wait four hours to comment at a San Diego Unified School District meeting? Sorry, you’re out of luck.

San Diego Unified board trustees reconsidered their move to place public comment at the end of board meetings Tuesday night. And they did not have a change of heart.

Those wishing to comment on a non-agenda item – for example, a specific problem at a school site, such as Porter Elementary – will still have to wait through an entire school board meeting to speak to their democratically elected representatives. The meetings often last anywhere from three to five hours.

Board Trustee Richard Barrera told me the board decided to move in this direction because of protestors who have used the non-agenda public comment time to disrupt meetings in the past. During the last 18 months, he said the board room had to be cleared twice because of protestors who came up during non-agenda public comment, but would not relinquish the floor. He also mentioned a third instance at the end of a meeting.

In one instance, community members protested the choice of a new principal at Lincoln High School, Barrera said.

Barrera acknowledged that the vast majority of people earnestly want to address the board. “I don’t like that people have to wait until the end,” said Barrera. “But the No. 1 priority is to get the business of the board concluded.”

Barrera said that the board would revisit the policy to see how it’s working sometime in the next year.

Our Work

  • Besides our Porter story, managing editor Sara Libby had a mind-bending tale about documents detailing alleged abuse that the district says got lost in a storage room. Over a four-year period, San Diego Unified officials continually denied having any documents that related to an investigation into La Jolla High School teacher Martin Teachworth. Turns out, they did. And those documents paint a horrendous picture. Even though district officials believed Teachworth committed a crime by groping a student, they kept him in the classroom for years.
  • Following a lawsuit and Andy Keatts’ story detailing sexual misconduct allegations by four young men against board Trustee Kevin Beiser, calls for Beiser to resign have increased. San Diego Unified trustees passed a resolution officially calling on him to step down, but as Keatts lays out in a recent piece, there’s not much they can do now except wait.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

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