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PPS Superintendent Proposes Closing ACCESS Academy


Fourth grade students at the ACCESS Academy work in a classroom in the Rose City Park school building, in June 2017.

Fourth grade students at the ACCESS Academy work in a classroom in the Rose City Park school building, in June 2017.

Laura Klinkner/OPB

Portland Public Schools’ ACCESS Academy has been in a temporary home at the Rose City Park school building in Northeast Portland since 2013. Before that, its growing student body was squeezed into the north end of the Sabin school building and some portable classrooms in the courtyard nearby. Parents have lobbied for a permanent home for ACCESS for years, including at a meeting at Sabin K-8, last week. 

Now it appears those parents have an answer from new Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, nine days into his tenure as the head of Oregon’s largest school district: ACCESS is closing, to be replaced by a regional approach to serving Talented And Gifted students who might otherwise attend the alternative program.

In a two-page memorandum to the school board, Guerrero put the dissolution of ACCESS in the context of broad changes slated to affect much of North and Northeast Portland schools.

“Opening Rose City Park as a neighborhood K-5 school has prompted work toward resolving how students enrolled at ACCESS Academy will continue to receive high-level services,” Guerrero wrote in the Oct. 10 memo.

“Beginning in the 2018-19 school year,” he continued, “PPS staff proposes to move to a regional service delivery model for talented and gifted students.”

The new approach would be termed “ACCESS Pathways,” and would send students from the single alternative school in Northeast Portland to eight neighborhood schools across Portland’s east side, with the intent of providing challenging, individualized instruction at each location.

“The ACCESS Pathways model would continue to support ACCESS students learning at their own pace, in which instructional delivery adapts to each child’s individual needs,” the memo says.

Just hours after the memo was released Tuesday, ACCESS parents were decrying the proposal as rushed, unworkable and short of details and funding. The school board is scheduled to vote as soon as Oct. 24 on sweeping changes to North and Northeast Portland schools, including the future of the ACCESS Academy.

“[L]ess than 2 weeks until the district is supposed to vote on a plan that includes a new home for ACCESS’ 350 kids, we were dismayed to have our entire school receive an email from the Superintendent about a plan that dissolves ACCESS and implements a completely new ‘regional service model’ that splits our school and children into 8 different PPS schools by next year,” ACCESS PTA president Jennifer Ellis wrote late Tuesday night. 

“This concept does not center the needs of the children of ACCESS,” Ellis continued, “and its design indicates a basic lack of understanding about what the ACCESS program is and who it serves.”

Oregon students are typically eligible for Talented And Gifted services if they score in the 97th percentile or higher on a test of cognitive ability. ACCESS students score in the 99th percentile. To enroll at ACCESS Academy, students must also prove their needs aren’t being met at their neighborhood schools and often must get a lucky number in the district lottery to land an available spot.

Some parents were intrigued by Guerrero’s proposal because it signaled an attempt by the new superintendent to prioritize improved instruction for TAG students across the district.

For years, many highly gifted students have been unable to take advantage of ACCESS - either because attending the campus in Northeast Portland wasn’t convenient, or because they were stuck on the waitlist.

But ACCESS parents have long argued the district should make more room for students whose needs are best met at a separate alternative school.

Other parents pointed out that PPS has been repeatedly found out of compliance with TAG mandates - most recently this year - with ACCESS being one of the few bright spots.

ACCESS parent Christopher Brown objected to Guerrero proposing such a drastic change without visiting the school or meeting with the PTA.

“This is shocking for the ACCESS community and shows a complete lack of understanding of all that the program provides for its students,” Brown said in an email to OPB. “I am infuriated with the capriciousness of this decision.”

Teachers echoed Brown’s reaction.

“Disappointed to see PPS proposal that will dissolve one of its very few successful TAG programs,” wrote long-time ACCESS science teacher Alfonso Garcia.

Guerrero’s proposal said “ACCESS Pathways” would bring four improvements for students across the district:

  1. Increase access to accelerated learning “in identified content areas for students”
  2. Build stronger connections to “social-emotional and special education wrap-around services”
  3. Increased capacity for “personalized learning” for more highly gifted students
  4. Instruction based on competency 

Public schools have been shifting in recent years toward providing services like special education or Talented And Gifted programs within traditional classrooms, rather than in separate classes or schools. It’s considered more equitable and can help students feel less isolated. But that puts more demands on the shoulders of classroom teachers. 

As Portland’s TAG director Andrew Johnson told OPB’s “Class of 2025” podcast recently, tailoring instruction for a wide variety of student levels - including students in the top 1 percent - is extremely difficult.

“When we went to school, you just got what you got,” Johnson said. “And I think that what teachers try to do now, which is very exhausting and complex, is really try to make the learning individualized and personalized.”

Guerrero has proposed a “regional model” to replace ACCESS Academy at eight schools: Duniway, Irvington, Peninsula and Woodmere for the elementary grades, and  George, Lane, Roseway Heights and Sellwood for the middle grades.

But Grace Groom, an ACCESS parent and teacher at Peninsula K-8, said simply sending students back to neighborhood schools without proper planning and supports would do students a disservice.

“I’m very concerned about students being sent back to neighborhood schools where their academic needs were not able to be met, and where many ACCESS children experienced social isolation or even more severe trauma and targeting as a result of their very real academic and social/emotional needs,” Groom said in an email.

Groom has also served as a member of Portland’s Districtwide Boundary Review Advisory Committee, or DBRAC. That committee wrestled for more than a year with the challenges of moving programs, balancing enrollments and shifting boundary lines. She said the committee repeatedly asked to work with the district for a permanent home for ACCESS, but never got it.

Groom called on Superintendent Guerrero to hold a listening session at ACCESS Academy to discuss his “ACCESS Pathways” proposal.

In his letter to the ACCESS community, Guerrero asked for parents to help create a successful transition.

“Our next step would be to develop an implementation plan that includes the necessary resources, professional development and other details allowing us to move forward in time for the 2018-19 school year,” Guerrero said. “We will be calling on ACCESS families to help because we know you have important perspectives on how your students succeed and thrive.”

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