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Kairos Tries New Approach To Closing The Achievement Gap In Portland

Educators at a North Portland charter school are trying a new approach specially designed for students of color. They're succeeding — but they need a permanent home.

They showed up for a recent Portland school board meeting by the dozen wearing black T-shirts with the words “Black Students Matter” emblazoned in green and yellow across their chests. Students, parents, community members and activists alike, all to support a small public charter school in North Portland: Kairos PDX.  

For the second year in a row, Kairos faced eviction after agreeing to a one-year lease on the former Humboldt Elementary School.

The debate began as a logistical matter: Portland Public Schools leaders wanted to free up space for the growing school district to re-inhabit the Humboldt school if needed.

But as the T-shirts and the impassioned crowd suggested, the conversation over Kairos’ future home is something bigger and deeper than just a building.

At the school district’s August board meeting, chair Rita Moore began by addressing the need for better education for African-American students.

“As we build our capacity to serve all of our students, we value community-led efforts like Kairos that have formed to try to fill the breach for black students,” she said. “We want to support them, to learn from them and to see how they can inform our efforts more broadly across the district.”

Students, parents and community members showed up in droves for a Portland Public Schools meeting to discuss Kairos PDX's future at the Humboldt building.

Students, parents and community members showed up in droves for a Portland Public Schools meeting to discuss Kairos PDX’s future at the Humboldt building.

Erica Morrison/OPB

Kairos PDX is a culturally specific elementary school that focuses on closing the opportunity and achievement gaps for African-American students. The school has about 170 students, three-quarters of whom are children of color. Of those, most identify as black.

Kali Thorne-Ladd, the executive director of Kairos PDX, co-founded the nonprofit charter school five years ago with a diverse group of leaders who observed something missing from the Portland education landscape.

“We found while there was really great work going on for middle and high school students to begin to move the needle … we did not see something happening in the early years category,” Thorne-Ladd said.

Kairos takes a holistic approach to education, acknowledging the external pressures children of color often feel. They teach children mediation techniques, for example, so that they can be in touch with their whole body and understand why it might be harder to concentrate or participate some days rather than others.

But when you walk into Kairos, one thing is clear: School leaders want to let children know they are seen. Every bulletin board includes images created by children, images of children or words by children. The message, constantly reinforced, is that each child’s words and ideas matter.

There are photographs, silhouettes and illustrations of the students all over the walls. One mural is titled “I like myself” and shows students celebrating things about themselves.

“We emphasize the idea that if you allow other people to define you, you become subject to what they project you to be,” Thorne-Ladd said. “But you have an opportunity to find yourself, so we do a lot for children to really be empowered.”

Ms. Crickett Varner greets each child in the carpool line at Kairos every morning, saying, "Have a good day, make good choices, and be amazing."

Ms. Crickett Varner greets each child in the carpool line at Kairos every morning, saying, “Have a good day, make good choices, and be amazing.”

Erica Morrison/OPB

National statistics show that students of color are punished more harshly in school than their white classmates and attend schools with fewer resources for success. Education experts talk about a school-to-prison pipeline that results from those disparities.

Kairos is trying something different.

“It reinforces that they are powerful, that their words matter, that they matter,” said Thorne-Ladd.

School leaders teach students eight habits of success: gratitude, empathy, self-control, zest, grit, discipline, optimism and curiosity. The list was developed based on early education research that showed these factors are as important as literacy and math skills when it comes to graduating from high school.

One bulletin board reads: “Zest, enthusiasm for learning and trying out new ideas. What does this look like? It’s participating in class discussions, joy in learning, excitement that is contagious as you explore in learning.” There is sign language that goes along with it to help cement in children brains.

“There are things like grit that children already have within them. Our job is not to teach them grit but to teach them how to tap into it,” Thorne-Ladd said.

Kairos students return to their classrooms after an awards assembly.

Kairos students return to their classrooms after an awards assembly.

Erica Morrison/OPB

Outside of one classroom is a display of fourth– and fifth-graders practicing their public speaking skills in front of their classmates. On the next board over, there are photos of a robot challenge in which students worked together to transport a tennis ball.

“There is a tendency to train, particularly African-American children, in ways that are very rote learning. There’s actually research that shows the way we educate black children sets them up for the prison system,” Thorne-Ladd said. “So, this idea of, ‘You jump when I say jump, you do what I say, you fall in line, and you stay in these boxes,’ those are not the careers that are taking kids to the next level.”

All the school’s fifth-graders are transfers. They were kindergarteners and first-graders at other schools. Kairos started with kindergarten and a very small first grade.

Once students graduate from Kairos, it is likely they will be attend PPS’s Harriet Tubman Middle School.

Kairos is a charter school that operates within Portland Public Schools. It acts as a neighborhood school for all the children in the surrounding area. They do not get to pick and choose who attends unless they over enroll.

“We have a weighted lottery, and we actually passed policy through the state Legislature that enables us to weight for underserved kids,” Thorne-Ladd said. “So if you’re a child of color you’re sort of a double pick in the lottery. We passed that policy because we exist to serve underserved, marginalized kids, not to serve — no offense — privileged kids.”

Children play during recess at Kairos PDX, a Portland charter school trying an alternative approach to help students of color.

Children play during recess at Kairos PDX, a Portland charter school trying an alternative approach to help students of color.

Erica Morrison/OPB

Kairos is getting a school bus this year to help fix one problem: Thorne-Ladd said the biggest reason for attrition is because students are forced to move out of Kairos’ increasingly expensive North Portland neighborhood and the lack of transportation.

Kairos and the board are still negotiating the details of the lease extension. Kairos said the agreement will include three more years with the option for two additional years based on the school’s progress in securing a permanent home. The school says it will take up to five years to find or build a permanent home.

“I think what’s good for black students is good for all children in the system,” Thorne-Ladd said. “Unfortunately, we have a system that is biased toward some children more than others. And so, when we get to a place where those children whose achievement is at the bottom if we’re able to provide them the opportunities to thrive. We’re going to see all other children rise up as well.”

Sharing America: A Public Radio Collaboration

Erica Morrison is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more “Sharing America” coverage here.