Fourth grade students at the ACCESS Academy work in a classroom in the Rose City Park school building, in June 2017.

Fourth grade students at the ACCESS Academy work in a classroom in the Rose City Park school building, in June 2017.

Laura Klinkner/OPB

Portland Public Schools is facing a formal complaint over its handling of ACCESS Academy, an alternative program for gifted students whose neighborhood schools were not adequately serving them.

The ACCESS parents’ complaint contends their children’s legal needs are taking a back seat to parents who want to change schools by choice. The parents’ contention is based on district plans to share placement decisions this week with parents who have applied for choice-based schools — what the district calls “focus options” — before the district has found space for ACCESS students.

Parents argue committing space to students who “want” a different educational option before finding space for ACCESS students who “need” a special setting is inconsistent with state law and district policy.

ACCESS has had a torturous last several months, and still has no firm location for the coming fall.

Most recently, it had been slated to move to Southeast Portland. But last month Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero reversed course, concluding there wasn’t time or money to remove the Pioneer school, currently operating in the proposed location.

ACCESS can’t easily stay where it is at the Rose City Park School building in Northeast Portland because the district is turning that building into a neighborhood elementary school this fall. The move is part of a complicated conversion of K-8 schools to elementary and middle schools.

Before that, ACCESS endured two other stops and starts. It had been slated to move into the Humboldt School building in North Portland as the Kairos PDX charter school’s lease was ending. But advocates and elected officials pushed for Kairos PDX to stay and the district agreed.

Access Academy, Portland's alternative program for Talented And Gifted students, spent the last few school years at the Rose City Park school building.

Access Academy, Portland’s alternative program for Talented And Gifted students, spent the last few school years at the Rose City Park school building.

Laura Klinkner/OPB

Shortly after Guerrero started as the leader of Oregon’s largest school district, he floated the idea of breaking up ACCESS and sending students to smaller neighborhood programs across the east side. ACCESS parents convinced him to keep the program intact — a promise that has proved difficult to keep.

The latest chapter is a formal complaint, from ACCESS Academy parents Megan Robertson and Natalie Hval. It asks the district to delay final admissions decisions for “focus options” programs until a location has been found for ACCESS Academy.

Portland Public Schools’ Director of Strategic Communications and Outreach Harry Esteve responded to OPB by email, saying that officials “have received the complaint and are studying it.” Esteve confirmed that the district “has begun touring facilities to determine which will best accommodate the program.”

PPS Deputy Superintendent Yvonne Curtis wrote to the ACCESS Academy community Thursday, emphasizing certain commitments the district is making to the 300-plus students who attend ACCESS or may enroll there next fall.

“We will have a home for ACCESS Academy in the fall,” Curtis said, committing to the “level of service” students are already getting in their current location at the Rose City Park School building in Northeast Portland.

Curtis acknowledged that ACCESS is unlikely to keep all grades, first through eighth, at a single location. She suggested a scenario where the lower grades could be co-located with an elementary program, and the middle grades with a middle school.

“We will do our best to have options in close proximity to one another, however we are not sure if this option exists,” Curtis said.

Curtis mentioned Irvington and Boise-Eliot as options, two schools that are converting from K-8 schools into elementary schools in the fall. She also mentioned Lane and da Vinci, two middle school programs.

But ACCESS parents argue the district is undermining the possibility of a school like da Vinci before officials have even had a chance to vet it. Da Vinci is a school into which students are admitted through a lottery; it’s one of Portland’s “focus option” programs. The parents’ complaint contends that the district may be inadvertently removing  da Vinci from consideration by filling it up with students choosing to attend the “focus option” before ACCESS has been decided.

The parents’ complaint goes on to argue that reducing the incoming sixth grade class at da Vinci could make enough room for that building to house at least part of the ACCESS Academy.

“Thus, the size of the admitted sixth grade class from the 2018-19 lottery should be determined after ACCESS program and building needs are finalized to make certain that needs are prioritized over wants,” the complaint said.

Curtis’ letter to ACCESS points out the district has formed an ACCESS Academy advisory group, which is meant to help the district find a location for the program “in the short term.” It includes ACCESS parents, district staff, and two school board members.