Sporleder gave until it hurt

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WALLA WALLA — He gave too much.

Those were the words echoed by teachers and staff at Lincoln High School when describing Jim Sporleder’s reason for resigning as principal of the school earlier this year.

Sporleder, a 28-year veteran of the Walla Walla School District, was a transformative figure at Lincoln, literally and figuratively. He changed the name of the school, brought a traditional class schedule into the alternative education setting, took the bars off the school’s lower windows and dramatically changed the way the administration handled student discipline.

And in so doing, he helped change the culture of the school. Now Lincoln, formerly Paine Campus, has been held up as an example of alternative education done right. There have been video documentaries, and national and regional news outlets have picked up on the story.

But the compassion that led him to open his heart to some of his most vulnerable and troubled students, and the fervor to help spread a new way of thinking about alternative education — a “trauma-informed system” — combined with the stress of Lincoln being labeled a school of focus by the state, proved to be Sporleder’s downfall.

“I emptied my tank,” Sporleder said shortly after he announced his resignation. “It’s been empty for some time and I don’t know how to get it full.”

Lincoln serves the district’s most vulnerable students. Some are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, some have parents who are absentee or worse. Some aren’t sure where they will even go after the school day ends.

As part of the school’s trauma-informed method of teaching — one in which teachers and staff try to understand and treat a student’s underlying issues — each student is assigned an Adverse Childhood Experience score.

A nonexclusive list of 10 ACEs by which the students are graded include things like sexual abuse, physical abuse and living in poverty. For each negative experience, a student is given a point. The higher the ACE score, the more trauma a student had experienced.

The year before Sporleder’s departure, 2012-13, the average Lincoln student had an ACE score of 5.5.

“A lot of our kids have had a lot of pain in their life,” Sporleder said. “For me it’s always been difficult to separate that. It’s easier for me to take on that pain, and that can make it difficult.

“A lot of kids are going through a hard time. When the kids hurt, we all hurt. Last year we had a lot of kids hurting.”

A school in crisis

When Sporleder first visited Paine Campus in spring of 2007 after almost 22 years as a teacher and administrator at Garrison Middle School, he found a school in turmoil and students roaming the halls. A districtwide assessment of alternative programs earlier that year found that morale at the school was not good.

“It was a painful report to read, and I had strong feelings that the district needed to find an administrator that would be able to show value to staff and students,” Sporleder said in an email to the Union-Bulletin. “Comments made in the assessment had students expressing that they didn’t matter, that no one cared about them, and that the school did not feel safe. Staff mentioned not feeling supported or valued for the work that they were doing, as well as some sharing that they did not feel safe.”

Natalie Allen-Tibbling, a history teacher who has taught at Lincoln full time since 1996, said the school had years of success before Sporleder’s tenure.

But in the years leading up to Sporleder’s arrival, staff turnover caused by rounds of cuts in state funding led to deteriorating conditions at the school.

“During that period of time it was pretty unorganized and it wasn’t real successful for students,” Allen-Tibbling said. “It was very devastating for us.”

“I had never seen a more out-of-control environment outside of the classroom,” Sporleder said of his first visit to the school. “Students were aware that I was the new principal coming to Paine the following year, and they put up some pretty big walls and did not give me a very warm welcome.”

Sporleder’s first full year came in 2007-08, and he pushed for a number of changes. Some small, such as having its own cook and printing a yearbook, and some large, such as changing the name to Lincoln and adopting the phoenix as a mascot. The school even started more formalized athletic teams and held its own prom.

“From the very beginning we tried to give Lincoln its own identity and its own culture,” Sporleder said. “The community has just been incredible, they’ve partnered with us on so many things.”

Many of the teachers who had had success at the school previously remained, and Sporleder hand-picked replacements for teachers who had been transferred out during budget cuts.

Sporleder credited his staff and students almost entirely for the school’s turnaround, but one of his first hires, science teacher Erik Gordon, disagreed.

“If a teacher is successful as a teacher, they already unconditionally love kids,” Gordon said. “That’s already in place, you can already do that. My personal opinion, that he (Sporleder) so adamantly disagrees with, the reason the building changed, or the reason our school was unique in the way it was, was specifically his approach to discipline.”

Sporleder was initially a traditional disciplinarian, but tempered that discipline with a focus on the individual first, then punishment.

But in the spring of 2010, Sporleder had his ah-ha! moment at a conference in Spokane on the effect of ACEs on early child development and how educators can use that knowledge to better reach their students.

Gordon saw the transformation from the ground up.

“He was in no way lax in discipline,” Gordon said, “it’s just that he was so big on love that kids, even ones receiving their discipline, would still want to ask him for advice. They’d still want to give him a hug, even though they received the consequences they knew they had deserved.”

One component of Sporleder’s approach to discipline was a reduction in the use of out-of-school suspensions, which forced struggling students out of the classroom when they were at their most vulnerable.

“We came to realize that’s not an effective form of discipline,” Sporleder said of suspensions.

Instead, the school focused on using in-school suspensions, where students would be isolated as punishment, but remain on campus and in a constructive environment.

“If you seek out the cause, kids will tell you,” Sporleder said. “And everything else just takes off from there. We allow them the opportunity to de-escalate. Once they are able to calm down, they’re able to problem-solve and then we can work on the problem and discuss punishment. But that comes at the end of the discussion.”

Student attrition was high in Sporleder’s first year, with 25 of 54 seniors failing to graduate on time according to state statistics. But by 2009-10, Lincoln had built a head of steam, and just 16 of 66 students failed to graduate on time, with nine of those students staying in school to earn their diploma.

An open heart

More than anything, Sporleder let his students and staff know that he cared, that they were valued. Sometimes indirectly, like pushing for the district to reassign a cook to the school (for a time, students had lunch delivered from another school every day), and sometimes directly.

“He literally wrote every single student in the school a handwritten letter one time, like two years ago,” Allen-Tibbling said. “Just to say, ‘I think you’re just the greatest kid.’ Or, ‘One of the things I like about you is the fact that when I see you in the hallway, you smile and say “Hey Sporleder, how you doing?”’

“He fricken’ wrote a handwritten letter to every student,” Allen-Tibbling said. “I mean, I wouldn’t do that, and there’s few people that care about these students more than me.”

But eventually Sporleder overexerted himself.

In 2012 Lincoln was named a school of focus because it had a graduation rate below 60 percent over a three-year average (the school has hovered just below a 60 percent four-year graduation rate over the past three years, but its five-year rate is around 70 percent).

“You get labeled, you get the scrutiny, and regardless of the improvement you make, you stay on it for three years,” Sporleder said of being named a school of focus. “And if you don’t improve for three years, the state can come and take you over.”

The added stress of being labeled a school of focus, combined with demands on his time from outside the school — speaking engagements at conferences about ACEs, others looking to learn from Lincoln and other time demands in the community — took its toll.

“He is compassionate to a fault,” Gordon said. “Jim’s need to protect, or desire to protect those that he cares for led him to absorb anything that he feels might cause them a negative feeling or experience.

“Being a school of focus, he was quick to absorb any negative energy that came down from the state about being a school of focus,” Gordon continued. “He would try to protect the staff from that, absorb a lot of the energy, whereas at a lot of schools I think that just rolls down.”

Allen-Tibbling, who has seen her share of hardship in her career, couldn’t help but cry for a moment when describing Sporleder’s final year at Lincoln.

“You take this person who is really, really good in his job, and he’s the nicest man, and you have all of these people from outside of the school asking for a piece of him,” she said. “He hardly had any time for school ... he would be here, but he was just frantic, trying to return emails, trying to return calls, trying to meet with people, people from other walks of life were coming in, and so he didn’t have time to do what he loved to do the most, which was be with his students and be with his teachers, because he was busy doing all of these other things.”

He took a medical leave of absence at the beginning of the school year, hoping to recover enough to return to Lincoln, but eventually realized he could never return and officially resigned in November.

Sporleder refused to go into specifics about why he resigned — the school district cited a “non-life threatening medical condition” — but, “when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to come back, it was excruciating,” he said.

“I’m not physically able to be able to step back in and take that pace that we were on,” Sporleder said. “The kids deserve the best, and I have to think of my family. I’ve never experienced this before, but I’ve always been able to be bounce back. Not being able to bounce back was really humiliating, but I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons.

“But this is not how I wanted to end my career.”

However, his departure, while painful for many students and staff, doesn’t mean Lincoln will go veering off the rails, Allen-Tibbling said.

“Some students have heard that people are saying now that Sporleder is gone, the school is falling apart,” she said, “and I think that’s the furthest thing from the truth. I think the kids are all still way committed to school, and that the teachers and staff are all still way committed to our staff and to our students.

“I mean we just got ‘Best in Show’ in the parade, for heaven’s sake,” she said of the recent holiday lights parade downtown, in which Lincoln High School won best overall float. “I think a lot of good things are happening now, I just wish that Jim could benefit from it by being here.”

The district will go through a standard hiring process to replace Sporleder, although it hasn’t started yet.

“I don’t know that I want (another) Jim,” Gordon said of Sporleder’s replacement, “because I think the pieces that made him so amazing are what wrecked him. The parts of him that he gave so much ... was the piece that’s not sustainable for anyone that’s in that position. You can’t give until your cup is empty every day, and then keep doing your job.

“It’s awesome to be around someone that gives that unconditionally, that loves that deeply, that loves that intensely,” Gordon said, “but it’s not sustainable. So at the same time, I want somebody in here that’s going to be able to be sustainable, even if that means they’re going to have to reel that back in a little bit to a place that’s got better self-care, that can last over the long haul.”

Comments

NicholeMAlvarado 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Jim Sporleder- You are a phenomenal man! I was privileged to have had you as mentor as a child. Now as an adult, I'm proud to call you a dear and close friend. For 28 years, you devoted yourself to making a difference. You knew the importance of building relationships and trust in the students you worked with. Please know the lifetime bond you created and the impact you had on each and every student was so beneficial. Some of those kids would have never known unconditional love or compassion if it wasn't for people such as yourself. Thank you for everything you have done for our community, our district, and for my family. You are amazing at what you do and your efforts do not go unnoticed. I truly feel in my heart that you would have had many more good years to come if the additional supports you needed to succeed were in place. As great as your staff is and as resilient as you are, you are still one man. Without that assistance, your health took its toll. You didn't care too much, you just needed a little more help. And though your time may be up with the district, you are not finished spreading your message. We love you Jimmy and we will support you in any and all endeavors in the future.

Respectfully,

Nichole M. Alvarado

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jkruchert 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Mr. Sporleader, Your friendship to my son gave him the confidence to graduate high school when for so long I was worried he wouldn't. You and the staff at Lincoln High School are exceptional on so many levels and we thank you for the years you gave your all. Good luck in your future endeavors. Kim Ruchert

1

walla993@gmail.com 8 months, 2 weeks ago

In the name of Jim Sporleder, I hope someone takes up the fight in Olympia to change the Washington State Mathematic Standard for graduation from high school. We don't need everyone to be competent in higher mathematics to be productive members of society. Basic math, yes, but out standards are too high. Jim Sporleder convinced me and demonstrated this with his work at Lincoln. MJ Smith Walla Walla

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