Reprieve For Portland's Pioneer School Leaves Questions For Gifted Program

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Portland, Oregon March 26, 2018 10:49 p.m.
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

Portland Public Schools' decision late last week not to move the Pioneer special school has reassured one group of parents while throwing another into limbo.

District officials decided it was too expensive and complicated to move Pioneer by next fall. Pioneer students and staff had been slated to move to at least two buildings: North Portland's Applegate building, which houses a Head Start preschool program, and the Rice school building in Northeast Portland, which is primarily administrative offices.


The Pioneer program focuses on students with significant behavioral, medical and academic needs. Staff have relied on therapeutic settings and de-escalation areas, as well as special surfaces and bathroom facilities to serve elementary, middle and high school-aged children at Pioneer.

Ultimately, the district concluded that installing all the necessary improvements at Applegate, Rice — and possibly at a third site —would be too much to do in too little time.

PPS was also facing a lawsuit from Pioneer parents. The complaint on behalf of three disabled students at Pioneer argued the relocation plan violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The main reason PPS intended to move Pioneer was to turn over its buildings on the Holladay-Youngson campus to the ACCESS Academy for highly gifted students. It's part of a bigger shuffle of schools in Northeast Portland involving students on five campuses. ACCESS' current site, the Rose City Park school building, is a key cog in those changes.

ACCESS parents are well aware of the complicated set of dominoes they're part of — and the uncertain fate of their program. They've been adamant about finding a long-term fit for not just the 300-plus students enrolled at ACCESS, but also the many qualified students who can't attend due to limited capacity.


However, parents have expressed mixed feelings about moving to the Holladay-Youngson campus since the change was announced last fall.

"A lot of people are up in arms at ACCESS," ACCESS parent Mark Keller told OPB in December, as he stood among Pioneer staff and parents at a rally against the proposed move. "They feel like what the superintendent has done to Pioneer is similar to what he had proposed at ACCESS initially."

Keller is referring to a change PPS proposed last fall, which involved breaking up ACCESS and sending highly gifted students to multiple campuses across Portland.

Suspending the plan to move Pioneer now returns ACCESS Academy to an uncomfortable, yet familiar position, of uncertainty. 

Before Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero's quickly-abandoned plan to break up ACCESS, the alternative school was slated to take over the Humboldt school building in North Portland from the Kairos PDX charter school. But after pleas from local leaders, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, PPS allowed Kairos to remain.

Counting the abandoned ACCESS break-up, the rescinded relocation to Humboldt and the suspended Pioneer move, the district is now working on its fourth plan for ACCESS since last fall.  And if the district wants to stick with its broader plan of restructuring its K-8 programs in Northeast Portland by this coming fall, it doesn't have a lot of time to find a workable solution for ACCESS.

"The District is not ready to name any of the options under consideration for ACCESS, but leadership is very mindful of the compressed timeline created by the decision to leave Pioneer in place," said PPS spokesman Dave Northfield.

PPS officials met with ACCESS representatives Monday, but no details emerged about possible options yet.

PPS could try to find a temporary fix — a place to house ACCESS for one year. But that suggests trying to move Pioneer in a year, which would again face opposition from Pioneer parents and staff, and a reemergence of the federal lawsuit filed last week.

Guerrero could return to his idea of breaking up ACCESS. That might seem unlikely, given the public apology he issued and the school board's vote to maintain the program.

Conversations have already begun on social media among parents in Northeast Portland about how to solve the ACCESS dilemma. One suggestion is to keep ACCESS where it is, at Rose City Park, and reassign neighborhood students to other surrounding schools to create more space for gifted students.