Parents and Stakeholders gathered to watch the May 30 PPS Board Meeting
Parents and Stakeholders gathered to watch the May 30 PPS Board Meeting Kelly Kenoyer

Portland Public Schools board members have made the contentious decision to divide and relocate a program for gifted students between two already-occupied PPS schools. Few parents are pleased. The decision was made in a 6-1 vote at last night’s PPS board meeting, a vote that elicited attendees to shout “Shame on you!”

The relocated program, called ACCESS Academy, has served around 350 talented and gifted students with additional needs that aren’t easily addressed in their neighborhood schools for several years. The program had previously been housed at Rose City Park School in the Northeast Roseway neighborhood, alongside some overflow students from nearby Beverly Cleary K-8. But, thanks to an October 2017 vote by the PPS board to turn K-8 schools into middle schools, ACCESS was forced to find a new home as the Rose City Park building will turn into a new elementary school next year. PPS has spent the past seven months trying to figure out where to rehouse the program.

Which, according to PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, hasn’t been an easy search.

“Deciding amongst buildings that actually have the space has proven to be a complex exercise,” Guerrero told the board last night “None of these locations are ideal.”

The agreed-upon plan divides the program between elementary schoolers and middle schoolers—something ACCESS parents say undermines the program. ACCESS currently allows students to study at their level, meaning younger students are often learning alongside middle schoolers. Prior to last night’s meeting, ACCESS parents filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming that PPS treats ACCESS students unequally by not providing a permanent home for the program.

The two sets of students will be divvied up between different Southeast and Eastside schools: Lane Middle School in the Woodstock neighborhood and Vestal K-8, in Montevilla.

It is still unclear whether PPS will hire more teachers to round out educational opportunities in both locations.

Guerrero said he hopes the integration of ACCESS in the other schools will bring more resources to the underserved populations taking the ACCESS kids in.

“I would certainly hope that it’s not a colocation with no relationship,” said Guerrero, and noted that students from the two school and ACCESS might share elective classes. ACCESS students will use classrooms in the main school building alongside their Lane and Vestal counterparts, but core classes will not be shared.

The change is set to happen before the beginning of the 2018-19 school year—in just four months.

Before the vote, Board Member Paul Anthony—the sole “nay” vote—asked if PPS had considered leaving ACCESS at Rose City Park, prompting applause from the audience. “We didn’t consider that,” replied Deputy Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, prompting gasps and exasperated muttering from the audience.

ACCESS’s student population is over 67 percent white, with Asian students making up the next largest population. Vestal and Lane are both “majority-minority” schools—Lane’s students are 37 percent white and 29 percent Hispanic with 34 percent representing other races, while Vestal is 44 percent white, 17 percent Black and 16 percent Hispanic, with other races making up 23 percent of the population.

According to Vestal Principal Sabrina Flamoe, the school will no longer have preschool classes due to the change—a new program that was set to kick off next school year. Vestal will also be sharing numerous spaces with ACCESS kids and will lose its computer lab, she said.

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Lane’s principal, Jeandre Carbone, said Lane would also lose its preschool and would have to turn its stage into a classroom for ACCESS students.

“As educators, we are supporting kids who are experiencing generational poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, foster care, tenuous immigration status,” said Anna DeVille, a kindergarten teacher at Vestal, who gave testimony at the meeting.

“The influx of students from ACCESS will nearly double our students,” she went on. “Portland’s history is entrenched in racism… what does it mean for kids of color to lose the opportunity of being in the kind of community that is representative of themselves?”