Think Out Loud

How after-school programs and other organizations are shifting resources during the PPS strike

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Nov. 21, 2023 6:07 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Nov. 21

Portland Association of Teachers picket near the intersection of Northwest 23rd Avenue and Burnside Street on Nov. 15, 2023 as the strike continues.

Portland Association of Teachers picket near the intersection of Northwest 23rd Avenue and Burnside Street on Nov. 15, 2023 as the strike continues.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

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How is the PPS strike affecting after-school programs and other organizations that offer kids additional support outside of school? We’ll hear from several groups that are shifting gears to offer kids and their families more resources as the strike continues. We check in with Sabina Urdes, the executive director of the East Portland Collective; Ava Shannon, the youth programs manager at the Northeast Community Center; and Jessica Swartz Amezcua, the owner of Adventures in Spanish.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. It has now been three weeks since Portland Public Schools’ students were in class. It seems that the teachers union and the district are actually getting close to a deal; they’ve apparently come to an agreement on salary increases and many other bargaining provisions, but at 12:06 on this Tuesday the 21st of November, the strike is still on.

For many families in the district, especially those with young kids, the last three weeks have been a daily scramble. Some, though, have found support from after school programs and community organizations that have quickly pivoted to provide new options. We’re going to hear from three of these organizations right now.

We start with Sabina Urdes. She is the executive director of the East Portland Collective. It’s great to have you on the show.

Sabina Urdes: Hi, thank you for having me.

Miller: What is the East Portland Collective?

Urdes: We are a group of individuals from the Lents community, as well as organizations and businesses, that come together to provide a space where people can come learn, connect with their community, and have fun without having to spend money.

Miller: Meaning everything you do is free?

Urdes: Exactly. Everything is completely free, and we do our best to eliminate even more barriers for people like, depending on what the event is, we sometimes offer support with costs that people might have to be able to attend an event, such as childcare or missing work or things like that.

Miller: What kinds of events for kids or families did you do before the strike?

Urdes: We do a lot of classes - community therapeutic horticulture is one, and a lot of community building in the form of clean-ups, celebrations, and an annual neighborhood festival. We participate in Portland Winter Lights every year, this is our third year. We create community murals; we don’t necessarily have a dedicated artist, the community is the artist, and everything from concept to execution is all whoever shows up and what their ideas are and what their abilities are. Those are some examples.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the conversations you were having with people in the community as it was becoming increasingly likely that there was going to be a strike?

Urdes: Well, for myself and others involved with this broad collective, the strike is personal. Our kids are in PPS, they go to school here in Lents, so we felt the impact firsthand. It was apparent right away that no one really had a plan for the kids during the strike, as far as PPS goes. We started hearing from folks in our community that the kids needed support, they needed a place to go, and also that their caregivers are overwhelmed, so we put a call out to the community and said, if we were to secure a space, what kind of resources are there? We would need snacks and some supplies and then some folks who might want to teach some things to the kids, and we got a pretty good response. We were able to organize within 24 hours.

Miller: You said ‘if you were able to get a space,’ meaning you don’t have a dedicated space?

Urdes: We presently don’t, but we are able to get a space as needed, whenever we have an event. It’s challenging, we would like to have our own space, but we make it work however we’re able to. We get a lot of support from Rose Community Development, so we’ve been able to use their community rooms a lot, which is what we’re using right now.

Miller: Is that where you are right now?

Urdes: Yes, we are in one of their community rooms in Lents.

Miller: So what have you actually been offering to kids and families over the last few weeks?

Urdes: Well, it’s been all dependent upon whoever stepped up to offer something. Some folks offered snacks and craft supplies, like what you might need to make slime, and then there are some instructors or educators from the community who offer to teach various things. Today, someone is teaching collaborative storytelling, for example, and doing a science experiment. We’ve done journal making, which is another activity that’s good for all ages. We have, in our groups, kids anywhere from kindergarten to fifth grade, so we kind of have to meet everyone where they’re at, but it’s been working out great having everyone in the same big group. We’ve done collage art, where they rip out paper and magazines and other supplies and then they make like a flower or something. We’ve built 3D snowflakes, like origami snowflakes, but of course, the most popular activity is slime making.

Miller: How have you been able to do all this with just volunteers and no dedicated budget?

Urdes: Right. Yeah, and also free to the community too, which is always really important to us. We’ve been doing work like this for the last four years. I think we’ve been able to do it through relationship building, with the folks in our community being really aware of what resources there are available when there is a need, and knowing how to mobilize them, and I think people respond pretty well to our calls for action because they’ve seen what we can deliver and they love being a part of it. Whether it’s [that] they have something to offer and they love having an avenue that just makes it easy for them to offer that, or whether it’s needing to receive support in whatever form, they tend to trust us and show up. That’s how it’s been working out.

Miller: How many kids have been showing up on any given day?

Urdes: On any given day, we have anywhere between 17 to 27, and 27 is kind of our limit. We created a registration process, and I always tell people that they can let me know at any point no matter how close it is to start time if they can’t make it, and then we’re able to bring someone in. We try to have a really good ratio of caregivers and kids. I hear from others who have volunteered or worked for either in schools or after school programs like SUN that it’s quite luxurious how many volunteers we have. We have like a volunteer per table, so the kids get a lot of support and assistance and we’re able to meet them where they’re at.

Miller: What have you learned over the last three weeks from all this?

Urdes: I’ve learned that I think we were expected, and we’re still expected, to be resilient in this strike, but I’ve learned that we can actually thrive if we know our neighbors and our community really well, and we’re able to work with each other and trust each other. I’ve learned that we can accomplish a lot together. I expected to white-knuckle the strike, like having to do my work and take care of my regular responsibilities while also caring for my child, but it hasn’t been too bad, just because of being in community like I said. There’s challenging moments, but we felt like we’re thriving at times, and it’s been just so beautiful just to see also how well the kids are responding, how eager they are to engage and to learn and to collaborate together.

Like myself, I don’t have any teaching experience or formal education in child psychology, so I was like, how will I get these kids to listen to me? But we worked together to come up with some shared values and some agreements that they came up with themselves and it’s just been working out. I think the kids are thankful to have a break in their day where they can go and connect with some peers. Some of them already know each other from school, others have just made new friends, and I think just as much as their caregivers need a break, so do the kids. They’re very eager to come and just engage in whatever we’re doing. I’ve learned to keep an open mind and to rely on my community because it’s a beautiful thing when we all come together.

Miller: Sabina Urdes, thanks very much.

Urdes: Thank you.

Miller: I’m joined now by Ava Shannon. She manages youth programs at the Northeast Community Center. It’s good to have you on the show.

Ava Shannon: Hi, Dave. Thanks for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. What does your school year programming normally look like?

Shannon: We have an after school time program. We’re an independent nonprofit in Northeast Portland, so we have a variety of schools we serve. We do a “walking school bus” as we call it from Laurelhurst Elementary every day, where our caregivers go pick up the kids and walk the half mile back to the center. Then we also have a school bus that drops off from Richmond Elementary, and then parents dropping off from a variety of schools.

Miller: The pickups though from schools, that works if there are kids in schools, but not if they’re not in schools, obviously. How have you pivoted, just in terms of getting people there?

Shannon: Yes, absolutely. That was one of our biggest concerns, and where we really looked to the community before the strike and just sent out emails, had conversations with parents in the lobby of ‘Hey, can you carpool?’ ‘How are you gonna get here?’ ‘How can we help?’ We’ve definitely seen parents come together, organize carpool groups, lots of grandparents helping out, and then older siblings walking their younger siblings to the community center. Definitely an increase in just individuals taking time off work and dropping their kids off at the center.

Miller: In the summer, you offer various camps. Was that an option for you this fall?

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Shannon: Yeah, that was what we first considered, and we have a really strong and dedicated group of camp counselors that comes back every summer, but right now they’re all away at college, so we had to pause and figure out what we could do. Instead of doing camps, we actually opened a supervised open gym; we have a large gymnasium and we made it into a drop in program where, for about three hour segments of the day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, caregivers can come and drop off their kids and have our staff supervise.

Miller: What’s the response been like?

Shannon: It’s really just been an outpouring of just positive feedback and ‘Oh my gosh, thank you. We just needed to get out of the house so bad.’ The kids have been so excited just to run around. We’ve seen a huge increase in kids being super passionate about just physical activity. We typically have more students that want to do art projects and color and read, but right now we’ve seen a lot of fort building with mats, pick up basketball, pickleball, lots of physical activity.

Miller: Interesting. So you see the need for a physical outlet more so than when school is in session?

Shannon: Yeah, it’s something the teachers and I at our programs, our caregivers, have talked about a lot, is that normally our smaller art room is just full of kids and we’re having to kind of say, ‘hey, take some time in the gym!’ But right now they’re just absolutely attached to the gym, just wanting to play and run and collaborate on a lot of very physical projects. Again, like I said, the fort building has been our most popular.

Miller: As we heard from Sabina, the very idea of the East Portland collective from the beginning was it would be free. Not just free, but sometimes even helping out families to make it possible for them to even take their kids there or drop their kids off there. My understanding is the Northeast Community Center is different. It’s a nonprofit, but people do have to pay for the various offerings. How have you thought about the cost of what you’re offering during the strike?

Shannon: It was really important to us to be mindful about pricing when it came to so many families grappling with the unexpected increase in childcare expenses. For all of the people that were already members of the center, this program, the supervised open gym was included in membership, and then anyone else who just wants to drop in, it’s $5 per child. Going even further, we have a community fund program, so if families are interested in a membership, we have sliding scale pricing, anywhere from 25% to 90% price reduction based on your income and just individual family needs.

Miller: Obviously, I don’t have a crystal ball, and I have no idea if the strike will be over by the time our rebroadcast airs tonight at 8 p.m, if it’ll happen tomorrow, if it’ll go on for weeks longer. What kinds of conversations are you having there about the possibility of the strike continuing into next week?

Shannon: Yeah, we are already prepared to just continue offering our after school time, which is now just an afternoon play time. We’re gonna offer that for as long as we need to through the strike, and then we will continue to offer the supervised open gym on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Miller: Ava, thanks very much.

Shannon: Thank you.

Miller: For our final stop in this round robin trip of Portland strike options for kids, I’m joined by Jessica Swartz Amezcua, who is the owner and director of Adventures in Spanish. It’s good to have you on the show.

Amezcua: I’m a longtime fan of your program. Thanks so much for having me.

Miller: What is Adventures in Spanish?

Amezcua: Great question. We offer play-based Spanish classes to mostly after school classes, but also parent-child and preschool classes, and story times around town, and camps.

Miller: Story times around town? Where do your programs normally take place?

Amezcua: We have classes in southwest, southeast, and northeast.

Miller: My understanding is often it’s in Portland public schools?

Amezcua: Our children, most of our students, yeah, they go to Portland public schools, and they might have Spanish after school on Monday or Tuesday. We’re at 17 different schools, 25 different after-school classes throughout Portland.

Miller: So what has it meant that schools are closed? Can you still do your programming in these buildings?

Amezcua: No, the buildings were closed, so when we heard about the strike, we thought, ‘oh no, we have to pivot again,’ but we figured it out. I reached out to our community partners, Southwest Covenant Church in southwest and different churches in northeast and southeast where we offer camps and preschool classes, and they were more than happy to step up to arrange to have us offer our classes there instead of in Portland Public Schools.

Miller: How much warning do you get about the availability of PPS buildings? I know that parents every day will get a text saying ‘school is canceled tomorrow,’ over and over. Is it the same thing for rental spaces for classes?

Amezcua: We receive the same information. We don’t have any inside scoop.

Miller: But is it as day to day for you as it is for parents?

Amezcua: Yes, yes.

Miller: So would that mean that every day you would then call up the church and say, ‘can we come again tomorrow’ or was it more or less a given that they knew you were coming?

Amezcua: We arranged for two weeks out. We created a brand new strike schedule so I could keep my teachers paid and keep the students attending classes, although the students were mixed up, they didn’t necessarily have the same teacher, their same classmates, but we just arranged with the churches. ‘if the strike continues, can we just continue this schedule?’ And they said yes.

Miller: So you didn’t create new offerings, it was that if you have been going to X school, you can now have a spot in Y church if you want it?

Amezcua: We created a brand new schedule, sent out registration forms. Of course, it’s free for them because they’re already enrolled. Anyone who’s already enrolled in our PPS after school classes had the option to sign up at any of these three zones. Maybe they have grandparents in a different place, so they could assign it for anyone. Then they’d choose Monday at two o’clock, or Tuesday at three, and that would be their strike schedule class for the duration of the strike.

Miller: Did you consider creating some kind of on-the-fly full day options?

Amezcua: I thought about it, but we have limits; our teachers have children, they have other part-time jobs. It would be too much to create a strike camp, for example, but at least we are able to continue offering Spanish to the kids who are already in our program.

Miller: What has attendance been like?

Amezcua: Good question. We have 250 PPS kids in our program, and 170 took advantage to enroll in our classes.

Miller: Do you have plans for this to continue into next week?

Amezcua: We have the option to continue our strike schedule classes, but our teachers, every day we say ‘strike schedule class tomorrow’ or we’ll say ‘we’re going back to Portland Public.’ We’re ready to go back to the schools when they tell us.

Miller: I’m curious what lessons, if any, that you’ve taken from the last three weeks.

Amezcua: The parents have been extremely grateful to have something, some kind of continuity with their children’s schedule. They don’t have regular school, but they can come to Spanish. It’s play-based, it’s fun. They still have that as an option, so they’ve been grateful. I think some have taken off early for vacation, so they haven’t all attended, but it’s been a whirlwind. I’m really grateful to our team who stepped up, figured it out, and our community partners and our parents. We’re all in this together, just figuring it out.

Miller: Jessica Swartz Amezcua, thanks very much.

Amezcua: Thank you.

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