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Demand High, Space Small At Program For Gifted Portland Students

Boys at ACCESS.

Boys at ACCESS.

Rob Manning/OPB

Over the next few weeks, parents around Oregon will make choices about where they want their kids to attend school next year. But limited space indesirable programs means many students won’t get into the programs they prefer. Some schools are especially tough. One of them is the ACCESS Academy – a program for Portland’s top Talented and Gifted students. Growth pressure is forcing the program to move.

Rachel Kyriss is teaching 3rd grade math to 1st and 2nd graders.

Teacher: “And look at the number 3 – is 3 a prime number?”

Class: “Yes.”

Teacher: “How do we know?”

Catcher: “It’s only divisible by one and itself.”

That explanation of prime numbers came from 1st grader, named Catcher Kemmerer.

On this afternoon, he’s eagerly doing 3rd grade math. It’s an improvement over his old school – as he recently told the Portland school board.

He told the board, “For example, I got very frustrated with my 4th grade reading buddy, because I was at a higher reading level than him. It was like reading to him, when he was supposed to be reading to me.”

That’s not the whole story.

An ACCESS program classroom in March, 2013. 

An ACCESS program classroom in March, 2013. 

Rob Manning/OPB

Catcher’s Mom, Cathy Kemmerer, speaking at the same school board meeting said, “What he didn’t share is how he unfortunately responded.”

She added, “He threw the book at his reading buddy, and he hid under a table, and he refused to come out.”

Kemmerer says trying to adjust took a toll on her son.

She explained, “By Thanksgiving, he was suspended after an incident in which the stress became too much. He kicked the teacher and pinched the principal.”

Catcher Kemmerer made it through his kindergarten year. For 1st grade, he came to ACCESS – where he’s doing far better.

Catcher Kemmerer is a student at ACCESS.

Catcher Kemmerer is a student at ACCESS.

Rob Manning/OPB

ACCESS is for kids who place in the top 1 percent in a highly gifted area and aren’t thriving in traditional classrooms. The program is full, with 218 students, says program administrator Eryn Bagby.

Bagby said, “We wouldn’t have capacity to hold even three or four more – and I’m pushing the limit by going up to 218 this year. This is the highest enrollment ACCESS has ever had.”

But for every three ACCESS students, there’s at least one eligible kid on the waiting list.

Xander Clair knows what it’s like to be on the outside, looking in. He’s now in 7th grade at ACCESS. He didn’t get in last year. So, his parents got him an inter-district transfer to get into Beaverton’s program for gifted students – a 45-minute drive away.

Clair said, “My Mom drove me that entire year — there and back, every day. That was like three hours of driving, every day. And I realize now how much she cares for me inthat area — schooling, definitely.”

ACCESS is wedged into the north end of the Sabin school in Northeast Portland. Most of its classes are in portables. And Eryn Bagby says the neighborhood program needs more space.

ACCESS program administrator Eryn Bagby

ACCESS program administrator Eryn Bagby

Rob Manning/OPB

She said, “Sabin needs our classrooms. They have four kindergarten classrooms – and they’re going to need at least two of our classrooms. We’ve just finally bumped up against, where there’s just no more room.”

The leaders of Portland Public Schools have committed to move ACCESS by next fall. The question is “where?”

Probably not into a school the district closed, according to enrollment director, Judy Brennan.

Brennan said, “I think we may not be in a position to open a building right now, but it depends on how we can —- I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s not our highest priority. Our highest priority would be collocation, if we can.”

Collocation means the district would rather find another shared space for ACCESS, like its shared home with Sabin.

Brennan says there are good educational and financial reasons to do that. But where?

The two schools with the most room available are off the table. Ockley Green ismerging with another area school.

Board members rejected moving ACCESS to the King K-8 building last month. It’s partly because the district wants the neighborhood program at King to grow – just like the one at Sabin has. But that option also had racial overtones. ACCESS is majority white. King is majority African-American.

In opposing the move, board member Martin Gonzalez said that “not all geniuses in the district are white.” Some ACCESS parents objected to that. Gonzalez later apologized for his choice of words, but he remained opposed to having ACCESS move to King.

He said, “I believe, and I still hold that King was not the solution.”

ACCESS administrator Eryn Bagby says greater diversity could come with more space. She says the problem now is the program’s early grades fill up with students whose parents get them identified as highly gifted early on - in kindergarten and 1st grade. The district doesn’t test until 2nd grade.

She explained, “And we’ve seen that as a huge equity issue here at ACCESS, and that’s why next year, I’m asking that we have two 3rd grade classes. So that we can grow to expand and include all those students whose parents didn’t for whatever reason get them tested in kindergarten and first grade, but now have done the district-wide testing, and they’re seeing that their needs need to be met at someplace other than their neighborhood school.”

Bagby says ACCESS needs room for at least 280 students, short-term, but up to 350 long-term.

The district’s working with a goal closer to 250. But is there a school building in Portland with that much room?

Enrollment director Judy Brennan said, “I’m not sure. There may be.”

She added, “We’re doing everything we can to look at schools in every flexible way that we can, to find the best collocation opportunity.”

It’s not just about opening the door to let more students in. ACCESS officials say they hope a new space can also upgrade what they can offer once kids get in, too.

A sliding louver door separates the science classroom at ACCESS from the school office.

Alfonso Garcia is leading 8th grade students through a unit on neuroscience as part of a course focused on research methods. He says what he can offer them is limited by the building’s facilities.

ACCESS teacher Alfonso Garcia

ACCESS teacher Alfonso Garcia

Rob Manning /OPB

By the time ACCESS moves, these eighth graders will be in high school. But they’ve already finished middle school science.

Garcia said, “We still do a lot of hands-on experiments, but having enough sinks and outlets for microscopes would be a great advantage.”

The district plans to improve middle school-level science labs over the next several years – as it spends 482 million dollars in voter-approved construction money. The money for science labs has already been earmarked for neighborhood and magnet programs – and it’s not clear that ACCESS would be moved in with one of those programs.

The clock is ticking. District officials say they want to tell families in the next few weeks where the program is moving — and who can get in — so that everyone can make plans for fall.