With school out for the summer, construction is underway for several Portland schools – including a major Portland Public Schools project to bring back a middle school the district closed years ago. Kellogg is set to open in southeast Portland in 2021.

That project comes on the heels of PPS opening two middle schools last fall in North and Northeast Portland.

But change takes time, and many students will remain in the same building as elementary schoolers.

Azaysha just wrapped up her sixth grade year. She’s one of 27 students OPB has been following since first grade. Many of Azaysha’s former classmates spent sixth grade at a middle school. Azaysha was at Marysville, a southeast Portland K-8 school, just a mile and a half from where PPS is rebuilding Kellogg. Portland Public Schools is still finalizing its plan to shift away from K-8 schools and toward separate elementary and middle schools.

Azaysha looks at ribbons pinned to the wall of her room in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Azaysha's wall includes photos of her family, a drawing a friend made of her, photos of her favorite band, and her first report card with letter grades.

Azaysha looks at ribbons pinned to the wall of her room in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Azaysha’s wall includes photos of her family, a drawing a friend made of her, photos of her favorite band, and her first report card with letter grades.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

It’s easy to tell academics are important to Azaysha. On her wall of memories, next to family photos and track and field ribbons is her first letter report card.

“I got two B’s, two C’s, two A’s,” said Azaysha. “I was not excited at all about those C’s, because even though a C is average, I don’t really like to get average grades.”

Also on the wall are examples of her first time writing in Spanish, the elective class she took at Marysville.

Sixth grade was her first year at the school. She showed up in February, and switched classes a couple of times. She made friends and liked her teachers, but she doesn’t want to go back next year.

“I don’t really like this school because I feel like the work is too easy for me,” said Azaysha. “I want to actually learn something instead of just already knowing everything.”

That’s a common concern about K-8s – that they don’t provide as many opportunities for advanced classes as middle schools can.

Usually, there aren’t as many electives either. A recent analysis of electives by Portland Public Schools shows Portland middle schools have between three and six electives. K-8s have between one and three.

But the district recently decided to set aside money in next year’s budget to provide more equal opportunities for K-8s.

It’s a temporary change while PPS works on the permanent solution to move most PPS students out of K-8s and into comprehensive middle schools.

This isn’t the first time Portland’s changed its education model for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. The district started moving students into K-8s more than a decade ago, after declining enrollment. But the inequities between K-8s and middle schools have been a noted problem for years. 

With enrollment increasing again, the district finds itself in the midst of a years-long effort to separate K-5 and middle schools – a return to a system more like the one it ran two decades ago.

Thu Truong used to work in administrative positions at two Portland K-8s. She saw firsthand the limitations of the model.

“I only had 250 middle school kids in the building,” said Truong. “While they had their own separate building from the K-5 kids, I just did not have the numbers to provide them as many opportunities.”

Now she’s at Ron Russell, a middle school in the David Douglas School District with almost 900 students. Truong says the larger school can offer more classes, at a variety of levels.

“We are able to provide multiple levels of instruction whether it’s intervention, core, or advanced,” said Truong.

She said the middle school offers more electives, too.

“Band, orchestra, choir at multiple levels,” explained Truong. “At beginning, at intermediate, at advanced, at jazz band, at musical theatre.”

Middle school offers students new challenges, like moving to different classes and having different teachers throughout the way.

Dude is also part of the Class of 2025 – and like most of the students OPB is following in the project, he attends Ron Russell. When comparing sixth grade to elementary school, he said he likes sixth grade more.

“More independent and a lot more fun,” said Dude.

At Marysville, Azaysha gets to switch classes too, but she says it doesn’t always feel like she’s in middle school.

Azaysha poses for a portrait in her room at her home in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

Azaysha poses for a portrait in her room at her home in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

“I know I am, but I still have to see little people walking around the halls,” said Azaysha.

She likes to help out the younger kids, something she might not be able to do at a standalone middle school.

But for all of the independence and academic rigor academic rigor a middle school experience can allow, there’s a lot to be said for the relationships that students in K-8’s get to build with teachers and staff.

Dude acknowledged he missed aspects of his old elementary school.

“My old teachers, a lot,” said Dude.

In a K-8, students spend years walking the same halls and seeing the same teachers they grew up with.

In middle school, Truong says building those relationships is more difficult.

“We only get them for three years, and so we have to build relationships with them fast because they are going to be gone in a flash,” said Truong. 

Truong says there are good things and bad things about K-8s and middle schools. Her ideal school would be a hybrid of both – separate buildings, but one staff and one vision for students. 

As for Azaysha, she’s changed schools a number of times since she was in kindergarten. She wants to transfer again, next year – maybe to a middle school in the Centennial School District where more of her friends are. 

Her mother says they’ll talk about it over summer.