4 Things To Know About The Fight Over Portland's Humboldt Building

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Portland, Oregon Sept. 26, 2017 5:45 p.m.
Humboldt Elementary School closed as a neighborhood public school in 2012.

Humboldt Elementary School closed as a neighborhood public school in 2012.

Aparna Vidyasagar / OPB

The potential move of a charter school program from a North Portland school building has some parents in the Portland Public Schools system worried about inequality.


But other parents understand the move in light of Portland's need to better fit the district's growing student body into a limited number of school buildings.

Here are a few things to know about how the district is weighing a potential move of the Kairos PDX charter school to make room for Access Academy.

Kairos PDX mostly serves African-American students.

Kairos PDX opened as a charter school in August 2014, after receiving unanimous approval from the Portland school board the year before. The charter school has its own board of directors, but relies on a contract — or "charter" — to be supported by the local school board. The state of Oregon can also approve charter schools, though Kairos is a PPS charter.

The focus of Kairos is to improve educational outcomes for students of color, in light of PPS’ enormous racial achievement gaps.

Related: Oregon Standardized Test Scores Show Racial Gaps Remain

Kairos opened with just kindergarten and first grade, but has added grades since then. In the 2017-18 school year, it is serving up to third grade.

Kairos moved into the Humboldt School building in August 2016. Humboldt is a PPS building that closed as a neighborhood elementary at the end of the 2011-12 school year.

Kairos' student population was 54 percent African-American last school year, and the building itself is located in one of Portland's historic black neighborhoods.

When Kairos moved into Humboldt, it was the first time that PPS allowed a charter school to use a district building. PPS has seven other charter school programs, and they’re largely responsible for finding their own space.

At the time Kairos moved in, there was already some discussion the move might be temporary, as school building and feeder pattern configurations were in flux. A year ago, the possibility of Access Academy — a school with mostly white students — moving in was on the table.

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

ACCESS Academy is being forced to move.


Access Academy is a longstanding alternative program — meaning it is run by the school district to serve a specific set of students who are not otherwise being well-served by traditional programs.

In the case of Access, it serves students who score in the 99th percentile on a test of “academic, cognitive ability.” In addition, students have to demonstrate they are not being fully served at their local school; the phrase the district uses is “demonstrated need for an alternative program.”

Related: 'I Already Learned This': The Challenge Of Teaching TAG Students

Unlike charter schools, school districts are responsible for providing a location for alternative programs.

Access has been located at the Rose City Park school building in Northeast Portland since 2013, where it shares space with two grade levels from the Beverly Cleary K-8 School campus.

But there are two problems: Access is growing and its supporters would prefer their own site. Additionally, PPS intends to return to Rose City Park to what it once was: a neighborhood elementary school. That leaves Access searching for a new home.

Access supporters are not actively lobbying to move into the Humboldt Building currently occupied by Kairos. But, they have asked for a site that is more centrally located than Rose City Park on Northeast 57th Avenue. Humboldt is closer to the middle of Portland.

Both schools are subject to larger forces. 

Portland Public Schools is in the middle of redrawing school boundaries for thousands of students in North and Northeast Portland — far more than attend Kairos PDX and Access Academy. The main drivers of that process are two-fold: Some schools have too few students in the middle grades to serve efficiently and some schools are overcrowded.

The Beverly Cleary School is one of those overcrowded schools, and has the additional complication of having its students across three school campuses.

The district’s preferred approach is to shrink Beverly Cleary boundaries and turn one of the campuses, Rose City Park, into a separate elementary school. But doing that forces out the other tenant in that building: the Access Academy.

Because Access is an alternative program with growing enrollment, the district needs to find a new home for the program. PPS does not have an abundance of options, and at this point, its preference is the Humboldt building.

Related: Mayor Urges Portland Schools To Let Charter School Stay Put

Political winds blow against the move.

Both Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Speaker of the Oregon House Tina Kotek, D-North Portland, have spoken out against evicting Kairos PDX and moving in Access Academy.

Both have framed the proposal as an equity issue, given that Access is mainly white and Kairos is majority black.

However, Access parents argue that summary overlooks the district’s different obligations to charter and alternative schools, as well as the complicated districtwide dynamics of balancing school enrollments, shifting boundaries and the limited number of school buildings.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the most recent enrollment data for Kairos PDX.