Facing closure, families of Portland online school students consider their options

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
PORTLAND, Ore. May 9, 2023 1:36 p.m.

A town hall Monday night organized by families at Portland’s Online Learning Academy drew interest from several Portland Public Schools administrators — and from virtual schools operating in nearby districts.

As families and teachers from Portland’s Online Learning Academy gathered in person and virtually to talk about the district’s decision to close their school, representatives from online programs in three other school districts had a message for them.

“We’re available,” said Beaverton FLEX Online School principal Paul Ottum. “We would love to help if you’re interested.”


“Happy to answer any questions so you can all make the best choice for your family moving forward,” said Jeni DeWolfe, Tigard Tualatin Virtual Academy principal.

“You would be welcome there with us if this opportunity doesn’t continue,” said David Douglas Online Academy principal Shawna Myers.

A parent holds a sign for the Online Learning Academy at a Portland Public Schools board meeting on March 7, 2023. In January, district officials announced the closure of the program at the end of this school year.

A parent holds a sign for the Online Learning Academy at a Portland Public Schools board meeting on March 7, 2023. In January, district officials announced the closure of the program at the end of this school year.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Students, teachers and families say that Portland Public Schools’ Online Learning Academy has become a community over the last two years. They say it has offered a place for students who didn’t feel successful in brick-and-mortar schools and allowed for flexibility in a learning environment that gained traction during the pandemic.

At the end of January, PPS officials announced the online academy was closing at the end of the year, saying it was a budget decision. OLA has been funded using federal COVID-19 relief dollars and that money is set to run out next year. Because the program was “not a school,” officials said they didn’t have to go through the district’s school closure process, which typically involves public engagement with the affected community.

Monday night’s meeting at Mt. Tabor Middle School allowed the OLA community to come together in-person and virtually. Parents paid for the space, brought pizza and organized a meeting that was partly an advocacy effort to keep the program running and partly a chance to give families a sense of what other virtual options are available next year.

Teacher Sarah Wall opened the meeting.

“No matter what the district does, we know that we created a safe space for students to learn and grow and feel seen and heard,” Wall said. “No one will take that away from us, and we will not stop fighting for what we believe is best for our students and schools.”

Restoring Online Learning Academy would have budget implications

The OLA parents who organized Tuesday’s meeting invited the superintendent’s leadership team to attend Monday’s meeting, but said they didn’t get any RSVPs. Four PPS district officials did make it though: chief of staff Jonathan Garcia; chief of schools Jon Franco; chief of research, assessment and accountability Renard Adams; and Regional Superintendent Margaret Calvert.

Adams said he came in response to the invitation to “be a good listener and understand the family and student perspectives.”

“It’s always nice to hear from our families and nice to hear and see students and hear that they’re succeeding and doing so well,” he said.

But OLA is not in the superintendent’s proposed budget for next year and the program’s closure will result in the reduction of 34.25 full-time equivalent staff members.

Related: Portland schools would lose nearly 90 staff positions in budget proposal

Adams said the board is still working through that budget, and OLA may still be on the table — but it’s up to the board and will likely mean tough decisions elsewhere.

“It’ll be probably their prerogative if they determine that they want to reinstate OLA, then what is that tradeoff, what is that we won’t otherwise do,” he said.

PPS board member Julia Brim-Edwards was also in attendance. She said it felt “horrible” to see other school districts welcoming Portland students, especially in the face of Portland’s continued declining student enrollment.


“They’re all of our students,” she said. Brim-Edwards is also running for an open seat on the Multnomah County Commission.

She said any board decision to add OLA to the budget requires four board votes.

Funding for public schools in Oregon is based on enrollment, and declining enrollment means less money. If a significant number of OLA families leave PPS, that could mean more dire budget problems for Oregon’s largest school district.

During the meeting, parent Hollis Blanchard outlined the advocacy efforts underway since the district announced the program closure in January. From holding signs at board meetings to speaking out at town halls to filing a lawsuit, families and staff have made it clear to PPS leaders that they don’t want the program to end.

Parent says PPS failure to run cost-effective online program is ‘embarrassing’

Blanchard offered financial details from both the administrative and OLA community perspective about how the school could stay open. OLA cost per student is much higher than district average spending. OLA cost per student is “around $22,000″ while district average spending per student is “around $17K,” according to PPS.

Blanchard said the district could use its remaining federal COVID dollars and actually bring in more OLA students if the program was advertised, lowering the high cost per student. He compared Portland’s online academy to virtual programs in the Beaverton, Hillsboro and David Douglas school districts. According to his data, the other district programs serve more students and have a lower cost per student.

“We are far larger than those districts and yet they had more kids in their online schools,” Blanchard said.

“To see that it is financially viable and clearly the demand is there, yet somehow we don’t know how to make it work in Portland — it’s embarrassing.”

Related: Why some Oregon students still struggle with attendance

OLA teacher Wall said she was glad district representatives showed up, but didn’t necessarily feel heard by them. But she said it was important for them to see the community stand together.

“They saw that this is how much it means to us,” Wall said.

Supporters emphasize the need for online option

During the meeting, a grandparent said her granddaughter had a strong relationship with her teacher and wanted to know where teachers will go at the end of the year.

Wall answered that some teachers will return to brick-and-mortar schools. Others are still unassigned. Wall and other teachers, including teacher Nick Blechman say this decision will hurt students whose educational and social needs were met in the online learning setting.

“By dismantling OLA, these students are being forced to either go out of district to another online school, or to integrate back into in-person, and that is not a dynamic that works for some of our students,” Blechman said.

Related: These Oregon students chose to start high school online rather than return to classrooms

Andy Petrick is a graduating OLA senior. He said he liked the casual yet rigorous learning model. He pointed to assessments that are less like a test and more like an in-depth conversation with a teacher about what you’ve learned.

“The overall learning, in my opinion, is much higher quality than in-person school,” Petrick said. “And there’s much more one-on-one time with a teacher.”

He also said the class content is more relevant to him, as someone going to college to study cybersecurity.

“In person, it’s like the exact same classes my parents were taking 30 years ago,” Petrick said.

Some OLA families are exploring other district or charter virtual options. Others are holding out hope that PPS will change its mind. Even with students likely headed in different directions, the OLA community is trying to move forward together. They’re working on a school directory so anyone who wants to can stay in touch.