The Portland Public Schools board voted 6-to-1 Wednesday evening to split up and move a program for talented and gifted students. District administration has struggled for months to relocate the ACCESS Academy, having tried and abandoned three previous plans.

Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero rolled out two options, both involving splitting students into two sites a few miles apart. At the prompting of chair Julia Brim-Edwards, board members approved relocating older ACCESS students to Lane Middle School in Southeast Portland this fall. Younger students will go to the Vestal school building, a few miles away under the option board members approved. 

The decision overcame opposition from parents, staff members and a student who testified. They questioned the district’s ability to carry out a thoughtful transition, and they blasted the district’s quick timeline.

They got no argument out of school board members when it came to how the decision had come before them.

“There’s pretty much nothing about this process that has been good,” said board member Rita Moore.

The proposed sites were announced just this week, and only a handful of people from the affected schools had a chance to comment, on Wednesday — the day of the vote.

Some asked for ACCESS to be allowed to stay where it is for a year. But the district is already pursuing a complicated set of changes, which involve that building.

Paul Anthony (foreground, right) was the only Portland Public Schools board member to vote against the recommendation to split ACCESS into two buildings on the east side.

Paul Anthony (foreground, right) was the only Portland Public Schools board member to vote against the recommendation to split ACCESS into two buildings on the east side.

Rob Manning/OPB

Even so, board member Paul Anthony pressed the district administration on considering alternatives that would keep ACCESS at the Rose City Park school building.

“Can we just leave ACCESS at Rose City Park, and distribute the projected students for Rose City Park to Lee, Scott and Vestal — do we have the numbers for that?” Anthony asked.

Deputy Superintendent Yvonne Curtis told Anthony that administrators and a parent-staff advisory group didn’t look at that possibility, because a previous board vote had already precluded it — by opening a middle school at Roseway Heights and designating Lee, Rose City Park, Scott and Vestal as feeder elementaries to it.

Later, another school board member, Scott Bailey, contended that the numbers wouldn’t pencil out for what Anthony was suggesting.

The discussion Wednesday began with a second set of possible schools as an “Option B,” for ACCESS: Peninsula and Woodlawn in North Portland. It was a less expensive option, according to PPS calculations — at roughly $600,000 rather than $1.1 million for the recommended move. But it would have meant putting ACCESS students in sixth through eighth grades at a building otherwise occupied by elementary students, a situation that wasn’t considered ideal.

The principals of the four proposed “host” schools each spoke in turn, detailing how they would have to constrain their use of buildings to accommodate ACCESS. Peninsula’s principal said it would lose an art room, its space for drama and music and a private area for the school counselor to speak with students, among others. Among Vestal’s losses was its computer lab.

Guerrero downplayed these losses.

“You would hear this from any principal,” Guerrero said. “I’ve been a principal, of course, I’m going to maximize every space I have to maximize services, supports and electives for students.”

But the most blistering critiques of the proposal came from parents, staff members and an ACCESS student.

Vestal kindergarten teacher Anna DeVille asked tough questions about the recommendation to move five grades of the 330-student ACCESS school to her predominantly low-income school on Northeast 82nd Avenue. She pointed out that Vestal is largely students of color, while ACCESS is predominantly white.

“Co-locating ACCESS … is a huge issue of equity. The influx of ACCESS would almost outnumber the students from our neighborhood and will change the school community — how will our trauma-impacted kids navigate a new and very different community?” asked DeVille.

Vestal supporter Kate Sage echoed DeVille, telling school board members, “The irony is not lost on us that a program titled ‘ACCESS’ will be housed in a community who has been denied access to so many things. We have been told so many times by PPS, ‘we are sorry, we didn’t do this process right, we didn’t treat you equitably, we will do better next time’. Well, this is the next time.”

No one testified on behalf of Lane Middle School.

ACCESS Academy fourth-grader Kirin Cowell-Shah questioned the wisdom of splitting up his school into two locations. Portland Public Schools director of strategic communications and outreach, Harry Esteve, looks on.

ACCESS Academy fourth-grader Kirin Cowell-Shah questioned the wisdom of splitting up his school into two locations. Portland Public Schools director of strategic communications and outreach, Harry Esteve, looks on.

Rob Manning/OPB

The recommendation didn’t get a better reception from ACCESS representatives or from a member of the district’s advisory committee for talented and gifted students.

As the district prepared to vote on a recommendation, the opposition and questions continued.

Fourth-grader Kirin Cowell-Shah questioned the wisdom of splitting up ACCESS at all. He contended that ACCESS works best as a complete school because students can more easily find classes that accommodate their learning needs. For instance, Cowell-Shah is taking an advanced math class, and would expect to continue with higher-level math next year. But that course would not typically be offered at an elementary school.

“How are you going to do that? Do you expect me not to study math for an entire year? Are you going to have a computer teach me?” asked Cowell-Shah.

Board members suggested the two schools are not likely to be their long-term homes. They spoke of other facilities that will be available in the coming years, and further assessments of programs and buildings, which could open up additional possibilities in the years to come for ACCESS and other special programs.

 Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Kirin Cowell-Shah’s level of math. OPB regrets the error.