UPDATED: Portland Public Schools has responded to questions from OPB, clarifying its announcement regarding ACCESS Academy and the Pioneer Special School program.
While language in Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero’s initial correspondence suggested the moves might be up for debate or refinement, with words like “possibilities” and “plan” in the original text, PPS told OPB Wednesday afternoon that the changes are final.
“Yes, this is happening,” wrote director of media relations Dave Northfield in an email to OPB. “There is not a need for a vote finalizing it.”
Northfield pointed out that the Superintendent has authority to move programs, and received specific authority to move ACCESS under a recent school board resolution. Pioneer, though, has not been the subject of board discussion.
The decision to move ACCESS Academy to Pioneer, and split Pioneer into several locations, is already drawing criticism on social media, from parent Facebook groups focused on special education and neighborhood schools. Some of the greatest worry is coming from parents whose children have attended Pioneer.
Staff and parents connected to ACCESS are also questioning whether Pioneer has enough room and proper facilities for the Talented And Gifted students from ACCESS.
Presenting such a change as final, without involving the affected families and staff first, departs from typical practice under past superintendents, in Oregon’s largest district.
ORIGINAL POST: After months of uncertainty, Portland’s alternative school for talented and gifted students may have found a new home. In a proposal shared with parents and school staff Tuesday, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero floated moving ACCESS Academy to a two-building campus in Southeast Portland.
ACCESS Academy’s future has been up in the air since its proposed move to North Portland was halted. District officials had planned to move ACCESS into the Humboldt school building, but supporters of that building’s current occupant, KairosPDX charter school, rallied for it to remain.
ACCESS is now at the Rose City Park school building in Northeast Portland, along with two grades from the Beverly Cleary School, a K-8 program spread across three buildings. Rose City Park is slated to become a neighborhood elementary school as part of a broader re-shuffling to relieve overcrowding and to beef up under-enrolled schools in the district.
Guerrero is now telling ACCESS families that they may move to two small but connected buildings at the Holladay site, near SE Division Street and SE 71st Avenue. It’s the current home of the Pioneer Special School, a program for students with significant needs.
“Earlier [Tuesday], I let staff and families at the Pioneer Program at the Holladay site at 2600 SE 71st Ave, know that we will be restructuring the program next year to align with district goals on special education inclusion,” Guerrero wrote to ACCESS families.
“This new direction opens up space that I think is well suited for ACCESS Academy,” Guerrero said, estimating the enrollment capacity at around 350 students.
Guerrero portrayed the solution as a “solid opportunity to take care of two critical issues simultaneously.”
Some students at the Pioneer Special School enrolled at the school after difficulties at other Portland schools, according to the school’s official website.
“Many students come to us after a long series of problems at home, at school, and in the community,” reads a statement on the Pioneer Special School web page. “In other settings they have been seen as either failures or victims. At Pioneer Special Schools we are adopting a skills-based approach that replaces the blaming and punishment/reward systems that children and their families have so often dealt with in the past.”
Guerrero would move Pioneer’s younger students to the Applegate school building in North Portland next fall. Applegate has operated as a Head Start program since it closed as an elementary school in 2006.
Pioneer’s older students would attend local middle schools and the Marshall High School building, which is currently home to Grant High School students, as their campus is rebuilt. Guerrero said the changes are part of a broader effort to reshape the delivery of special education services, so that special needs students can go to school closer to home, around traditional students and with a larger array of course offerings and instructors.
“We are not making these changes lightly,” Guerrero said in a letter to families at Pioneer. “We understand that transition can be difficult for some students, and we will do all we can to make this process go as smoothly as possible.”
The move toward shifting students with particular needs out of a centralized program and into neighborhood schools, however, mirrors the abandoned effort to dissolve ACCESS Academy and serve Talented And Gifted students in neighborhood schools. That plan was met with opposition from ACCESS parents, who argued Portland leaders had not demonstrated a coherent plan for supporting the students’ specific learning needs outside of ACCESS Academy. Parents of Pioneer students may make similar arguments.
The Pioneer, ACCESS and Applegate transitions would coincide with other big changes in Oregon’s largest school district: particularly, the opening of a neighborhood elementary school and two middle schools, and the conversion of seven K-8 programs to elementary schools. School board members have expressed reservations about adding more big projects, given staff limitations to follow through on much more than the already-approved school openings and conversions.