Staff and advocates claim lack of accountability for Oregon special education system

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Aug. 29, 2023 1 p.m.

This is story part of OPB’s series on the state of special education. You can read past stories on family experiences here and here, and hear from staff members here and here.


Like other students with disabilities, Alicia Paz’s child, Javi, had a rocky start in the Portland Public Schools system.

Paz describes her child as a 9-year-old who enjoys reading and likes going to school. Virtual school went well. But when Javi started attending second grade in person, they struggled socially and would get upset or frustrated — sometimes leaving the classroom. Paz said Javi, who has autism, was kicked out of class, physically restrained by school staff and suspended multiple times.

“Although they still kind of enjoyed going to school, I would get phone calls to pick them up,” Paz said.

Javi Paz poses with their dog, Poky, in their Southeast Portland home on Aug. 16, 2023. Javier has had Poky for four years and named him after a book, "The Poky Little Puppy."

Javi Paz poses with their dog, Poky, in their Southeast Portland home on Aug. 16, 2023. Javier has had Poky for four years and named him after a book, "The Poky Little Puppy."

Caden Perry / OPB

That experience followed Javi to two different Portland elementary schools before they were referred to Pioneer, which is classified as a “special school” by the state and the Individuals with Disabilities Act as an alternative program serving students with disabilities. It’s a small program with two sites in Southeast Portland for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“We’ve had two teachers at Pioneer who have been wonderful who not only understand autism in general but … are able to be really flexible,” Paz said.

Paz said Javi is coming out of their shell socially and tells their mother about the interests of other students.

“They got invited to their first birthday party this year,” Paz said. “They’ve never been invited to a birthday party before.”

Javi (left) pulls off some dance moves for the camera in Southeast Portland on Aug. 16, 2023. Javi is currently on summer vacation and will be entering fourth grade this upcoming fall.

Javi (left) pulls off some dance moves for the camera in Southeast Portland on Aug. 16, 2023. Javi is currently on summer vacation and will be entering fourth grade this upcoming fall.

Caden Perry / OPB

Pioneer is working for Javi, but not every student is successful in the program.

Former Pioneer staff and advocates voice a number of concerns about the program. They say safety is a problem, with too many students being physically restrained by staff. Academics are sorely lacking amid low expectations and inconsistent teaching, made worse by high rates of staff turnover. More broadly, programs like Pioneer are not required to report the same information to the state as other educational institutions, leading to a lack of accountability for systems serving Oregon’s most vulnerable students. Staff claim some students are not receiving the free, appropriate public education they are legally entitled to.

Megan Brown used to work at Pioneer, first as a paraeducator, then as a teacher on an emergency license. Inside her ninth-grade classroom, she said things were under control despite a heavy workload and not having the materials she needed at the beginning of the year.

“I loved the students that I had in my classroom, I loved the conversations that we were having and how much I saw them grow in such a short amount of time,” Brown said.

But outside of her classroom, she said things were “chaos.” She resigned in the middle of last school year after speaking up about some of the issues she was concerned about.

“I would still go into the hallways and talk to my coworkers and I would realize there were still all these issues,” Brown said of Pioneer. “There were still students being dragged out of classrooms, there were still people using holds [restraints] incorrectly.”

She said she felt like she was part of a system that was “working against” her and her students.

Few rules and weaker standards for Oregon’s “special schools”

Pioneer’s “special school” designation means the Oregon Department of Education treats it differently than a typical public school. Special schools are “designed to meet the unique needs that arise from a child’s disability when those needs can’t be met in other settings,” according to the state.

Every special school is different, but due to the student population they serve, special schools are allowed flexibilities not afforded to other public schools. These programs aren’t required to submit the same data to the state and some students may be on a shortened school day schedule. Staff at Pioneer say some students receive modified or “extended diplomas,” which require just 12 credits, half of what’s required for a typical Oregon high school graduate.

Ideally, this added flexibility allows those running special schools to offer a supportive environment for students who are not able to succeed in a more typical school setting. But often, the program can seem like a black box where other schools offload students the mainstream system doesn’t serve well.

The sign outside of Pioneer Schools in Southeast Portland on Aug. 16, 2023. Special education in Oregon is understaffed, underexperienced and is facing a lack of accountability for how it serves students most in need.

The sign outside of Pioneer Schools in Southeast Portland on Aug. 16, 2023. Special education in Oregon is understaffed, underexperienced and is facing a lack of accountability for how it serves students most in need.

Caden Perry / OPB

One tenet of the Pioneer program is that there are other adults there to support students in addition to teachers and paraeducators. The staff list includes counselors, qualified mental health professionals and therapeutic intervention coaches, all working to help meet students’ social, emotional and behavioral needs.

But staff say turnover and staff inexperience has been a challenge. Relationships with trusted adults are important for any child but for students with disabilities, consistency is critical for maintaining routines and making progress. Building relationships with new staff — or having substitute teachers leading classrooms — can make developing skills more difficult.

In the classroom, staff say substitute teachers don’t know how to work with the student population at Pioneer, leaving paraeducators to lead classes without planning time or compensation. Inadequate pay and lack of support lead to staff turnover, especially in student-facing positions.

Both enrollment and staffing have declined in the last five years, with 86 students and 75 staff members in 2022, though district officials say Pioneer maintains higher staffing ratios than other schools.

Unlike its more than 80 other schools and programs, PPS does not report substitute usage or teacher experience data publicly for Pioneer. OPB found that in 2022, seven of Pioneer’s 16 teachers had preliminary teaching licenses, which means about half of the teachers are in their first four years of the job.

Carla Cummins is a parent of a student who attended Pioneer last school year. She said her son Gabriel, who is nonverbal and has autism, had great teachers working with him at Pioneer, but staff leaving mid-year changed up his team. That happened despite Cummins stressing the need for consistency for Gabriel at the beginning of the year. Cummins recalls asking if Gabriel would have the same team for the whole school year.

“I just kind of wish that when I asked that question that somebody would have treated me like an adult and said, ‘you know, it may or may not be possible’,” Cummins said.

District officials said staffing has been a challenge at Pioneer, much like in other schools. And with higher staff ratios, that might mean more open positions.

“We decided in our programming model to have staff there at higher rates and so to meet that need, we want to have the positions filled,” said Jey Buno, PPS chief of student support services.

Some former staff members say that in addition to the frequent staff changes, the program culture and environment are not serving students. One current staff member says Pioneer does a good job of “managing the behavior” of students but does not give them an “adequate education.”

Several current and former Pioneer staff OPB spoke to for this story requested anonymity due to fears of retaliation.

In an interview, Buno said school leaders met with staff to receive feedback, and that improvements are ongoing. “We have amazing staff working very hard every single day to address the needs of the most complex students in Portland Public Schools and they’re doing it and the kids are making progress, the kids are having positive outcomes,” he said.

Beyond enrollment numbers, data about Pioneer is hard to come by. Portland Public Schools shares no public data on funding for the individual program, teacher experience, or student achievement.

PPS officials said Pioneer and the district track attendance, grades, and credits students earn at Pioneer. “We track their individual students’ progress in any special education program, whether they be in a comprehensive school or Pioneer,” Buno said.

But that student-level tracking isn’t organized in a way that monitors how the program is doing as a whole. Pioneer is not among the more than 1,200 public schools and programs that the Oregon Department of Education shares data about. No “special schools” are.

Low expectations and physical restraints keep students down

When asked about graduation rates or postsecondary outcome data for Pioneer students, the district said they do not have it because “the Pioneer program is not an accountable school in that sense.”

Annie Scott, a former Pioneer career coordinator, said students didn’t think postsecondary opportunities were possible for them. So she said she approached the job differently, working on building community and making sure students felt “seen and loved.”

Every week, she took a group of students to Feed the Mass, a nonprofit that provides educational food programming, to learn about cooking and independence.

The lower expectations could have a downside, though. Scott remembers one student she thought would make a great teacher, but said the student didn’t have the support or community to do that once they left Pioneer. Additionally, colleges and universities typically do not accept the 12-credit diploma.

How, Scott said, is this student going to start a teacher program? “They’re brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” said Scott. Scott said if she could get the student into Portland Community College’s Portland Teacher Program, they’d thrive.

”It was just Pioneer, it just kept [them] down.”

The Youngson school building is part of the Pioneer School program that serves students with disabilities in Portland, Aug. 16, 2023. Pioneer takes in students in kindergarten to 12th grade who have social, emotional, developmental and life skills needs.

The Youngson school building is part of the Pioneer School program that serves students with disabilities in Portland, Aug. 16, 2023. Pioneer takes in students in kindergarten to 12th grade who have social, emotional, developmental and life skills needs.

Caden Perry / OPB

In documents shared with OPB, district officials note the disparities in the program’s demographics — and how student behavior is addressed — compared to students in other PPS buildings. Pioneer has a higher ratio of students of color with 52% compared to 40% districtwide, And it has far more boys — 80% — than other Portland public schools, according to district data from the 2021-22 school year.

“The use of Physical Restraint occurs often within this setting,” according to a July 2022 draft of the district’s Continuous Improvement Plan shared with state lawmakers. “[O]ur students are being restrained at a higher rate than that of their peers within the district. We will need to take steps to decrease the use as it is traumatizing to students and will only be used as a last resort.”


In the same report, district officials say the use of physical restraints at Pioneer is “very high” — and despite setting a goal for 2022-2023 to reduce the use of physical restraints by 50%, the number appears to have increased.

Brown and other former and current staff members say reporting incidents of physical restraints at Pioneer is inconsistent, and training isn’t always taken seriously despite working in an environment serving students with complex needs. That suggests the number of restraints could actually be higher than what’s being reported.

Prior to the pandemic, some years there were over 2,000 restraint incidents reported for the Pioneer program, according to PPS data shared with OPB. But despite a sharp post-pandemic decline, there were 871 restraint incidents among 78 students during the 2021-2022 school year — an average of roughly 11 restraint incidents per student. Districtwide, Pioneer students make up about a third of the students who were restrained and 44% of incidents reported, despite constituting a tiny fraction of the district’s enrollment.

Data shared with OPB show the number of restraints went up at Pioneer this past school year, with over 1100 incidents in 2022-2023.

Districtwide, PPS reported 1,946 restraints in the 2021-2022 school year and 1,939 in 2022-2023. The state’s next largest school districts, Salem-Keizer and Beaverton, report restraint incidents at far lower numbers.

Students at Pioneer also are on a shortened school day schedule, an issue that affects hundreds of students with disabilities statewide. New legislation effective this summer requires parents to consent to a shortened school day schedule in an effort to reduce the number of students receiving less instructional time than their peers.

Tom Stenson is deputy legal director of Disability Rights Oregon, a nonprofit advocacy organization for people with disabilities that pushed for Senate Bill 819, the shortened school day bill.

Pioneer’s shorter day for all students is one of the main reasons Stenson visited the program last school year. He said the effects of diminished time in school compound over time for students.

“If you have a student who just year in year out is getting a shortened school day, they’re not learning with their peers, they’re not learning the academic subjects that they need to learn and they’re also not learning appropriate socialization.”

This fall, Pioneer will have a longer school day, Buno said, in order to adhere to the new legislation. Also this year, Buno said Pioneer student data will be reported as if the student is attending their neighborhood school, as required by Senate Bill 923, which passed this year.

Oregon failing to consistently serve kids with the highest needs

Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser-Blouin (D-Albany) represents Oregonians living miles away from Pioneer. But as an advocate in the Legislature for children in difficult circumstances, she’s been concerned about Pioneer for a long time.

“The whole thing is just — is bizarre,” Gelser-Blouin said. “On its face, kids with the highest need, it makes no sense that they would have the shortest days, with the least experienced teachers, with the least training, with the fewest materials, and the lowest budget and least services at a school.”

In response to Gelser-Blouin’s comments, Buno said student progress at Pioneer is assessed in meetings between families and staff.

“It’s not done through legislation, it’s not done through news reports, it’s not done through coming to the board meeting,” he said. “It’s done by sitting down with the group of professionals, the educators, and the family.”

Like former staff members, Gelser-Blouin has raised concerns about the use of restraint, lack of academic support, and reduced graduation pathways for Pioneer students.

“I believe every kid is capable of learning, but they’re not being served and there’s no one to hold them accountable for it because you can’t see what that looks like in the long term,” Gelser-Blouin said. “We can’t see how many of those kids are employed post-secondary, how many of those kids end up living in group homes rather than independently, or how many go to jail because they’re not required to do any of that.”

Gelser-Blouin said Pioneer is unique because of its size and its prominence as a whole program operated by Oregon’s largest school district. But she said there are individual classrooms across the state that operate in a similar way, with a similar lack of oversight.

“There’s no way to hold schools accountable for that if we just take the kids with the most needs, pull them out of schools, and send them to their own places where we never get to see what we’re doing with them,” Gelser-Blouin said.

The state does not collect data on how many “special schools” exist in Oregon, though there are similar programs at school districts and education service districts across the state. ODE does not publish the same data — things like enrollment or graduation rate information — that it does for other schools, though school districts do have a “special education profile” that includes information about all students with individualized education plans in a district.

Stenson, from Disability Rights Oregon, calls programs like Pioneer “segregated, disability-only” schools.

While Stenson said Pioneer offers more services than other similar schools he’s seen, students still don’t have access to “typical” school opportunities like extracurriculars and recess.

“If you told a fourth grader who had no disabilities, ‘oh we’re going to send you to this school this year, and there’s no recess, and you eat lunch at your desk, and you have no time to socialize with your friends, and you go home at 1:30, that fourth grader would be really mad — they’d be really upset, they would hate school,” he said.

Under special education law, students are entitled to receive an education in the “least restrictive environment” possible. PPS administrators acknowledge that Pioneer is among the most restrictive environments.

Pioneer is intended to be a transitional program, a place where students can get help to stabilize behaviors and be in a better place to learn before heading back to their neighborhood school. But some students don’t leave — they stay there for months or years.

“If a student is forever going to a highly specialized segregated school, they’re going to miss out on all the social skills that they might develop,” Stenson said. “Even if it’s harder to deliver some of those services in neighborhood schools, it is so important to do that so that kids really do have that full educational experience.”

Holding special education systems accountable often up to parents

Regardless of where a student attends school, there are a few ways to seek help when a student isn’t receiving the services or support they should at school. It’s on the family of a child with a disability to do that.

“The legal structures that we work with almost entirely put the onus on the person with a disability to figure out what the problem is and then to take the initiative and make the effort to really press for something that, that should be their right for something that they shouldn’t need to ask for,” Stenson said.

Seeking help ranges from just knowing your rights and what to ask for in meetings with school staff to filing complaints at the local, state, or even federal level.

Maren Peterson is a parent in the La Grande School District in Eastern Oregon. More than four years ago, she and her husband Bryan Endress filed a complaint with the Oregon Department of Education, alleging systemic violations for students receiving special education services.

But in the four years since Peterson, Endress, and other parents spoke to investigators, ODE has yet to publish final orders addressing Peterson and Endress’ complaint fully. Her son Adam, who was graduating from high school when the complaint was filed, has now graduated from college.

“There is zero accountability and there is no hope that it will change from our part,” Peterson said.

Peterson and Endress doubt that the investigation was “fair and complete.”

Peterson would like to see more transparency around records and more support for students, including a publicly funded advocate or attorney focused on a students’ needs in every meeting for a student receiving special education services.

Some families have taken to hiring their own attorneys to make sure students get the education they’re entitled to. But advocating requires time, money, and other resources many families don’t have.

Paz, whose child struggled in school before arriving at Pioneer, brings a lawyer to every meeting she has with school staff. And she wonders if it has increased the level of care her child has received. “I have wondered if it’s because we have a lawyer, straight up,” she said.

Disability rights advocates say the state should do more to make sure every family can get the services they deserve.

The U.S. Department of Education recently shared guidance reminding states of their responsibility to make sure school districts are providing all students with a free appropriate public education, regardless of disability.

Late last month, Officer of Special Education Programs Valerie Williams sent a letter to states about the guidance.

“Ultimately, this document underscores each State’s general supervision responsibility to ensure that all school-age children, regardless of the nature or severity of their disability, can access FAPE [free appropriate public education] in the least restrictive environment and that infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families receive appropriate early intervention services to the maximum extent appropriate,” the letter said.

Pioneer’s future: no longer in jeopardy, some say it’s unsustainable

Five years ago, PPS superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero was new to Oregon’s largest district. One of his first proposals was moving Pioneer to make room for a program for talented and gifted students. Pioneer families and staff protested, questioning the optics of effectively shuttering a school serving students with disabilities.

Pioneer remained open, and parent Alicia Paz wants her child Javi to stay there for at least a little longer. They’re going into fourth grade this fall.

Alicia Paz (left) and her child, Javi (right), sit for a portrait in Southeast Portland on Aug.16, 2023. Javi has autism and currently attends Pioneer School.

Alicia Paz (left) and her child, Javi (right), sit for a portrait in Southeast Portland on Aug.16, 2023. Javi has autism and currently attends Pioneer School.

Caden Perry / OPB

“Javi has had really great experiences at Pioneer,” Paz said. “I don’t know when the transition will happen, but at this point, I don’t see it being … in the next school year — and I’m a little bit nervous about what Javi’s going to do with significantly less support.”

But Pioneer has room to grow when it comes to the relationship students and families have with the program. On the most recent Successful Schools Survey, Pioneer was rated significantly lower than the district on school climate, student mindset, and staff-family relationship. PPS officials said school leaders have made efforts to improve engagement with families.

Some former staff would rather see Pioneer shut down because they say PPS isn’t adequately serving students there. One longtime staffer said the school staff and administration have good intentions, but don’t have enough support and resources.

“I don’t think the school should be closed, I think it should be re-designed,” the staff member said.