Rushed announcement to overhaul PPS's Pioneer Program brought opposition; the superintendent says he's heard the concerns

JONATHAN HOUSE/THE PORTLAND TRIBUNE - Portland Public Schools' superintendent, Guadalupe Guerrero, started in October.The superintendent of Portland Public Schools, Guadalupe Guerrero, is clarifying one of his initiatives after it faced intense opposition from teachers, families and students.

Late Wednesday, Guerrero told critics he had identified a new site for students from the upper grades at the Pioneer School, a program for students with intense social, behavioral and physical needs. PPS won't disclose the name of the site, however. A spokesman for the district, Dave Northfield, said Guerrero wants to tell Pioneer parents in person first, adding that Guerrero's plan always included this component, although his initial announcement didn't say that.

Guerrero last week set off a firestorm when he declared the whole Pioneer program would move from its home in Southeast Portland in order to make room for the ACCESS Academy, an alternative school for talented-and-gifted students who aren't served by their neighborhood schools. ACCESS, currently housed at Rose City Park Elementary School in Northeast Portland, has to move in order to allow the district to balance enrollment at other schools, but a previous plan to move ACCESS to the former Humboldt Elementary School fell apart under political opposition; KairosPDX, a charter school that largely serves students of color, currently calls Humboldt home.

Guerrero devised his original plan for Pioneer without consulting with teachers and families. It called for moving elementary-school students at Pioneer to the former Applegate Elementary School, in North Portland, displacing a Head Start program. About 60 older students, those in middle and high school, would be mainstreamed at neighborhood schools, Guerrero's initial announcement suggested.

Opposition to this plan arrived at Tuesday night's school-board meeting in the form of several hundred critics in red T-shirts that said "support the unsupported." Teachers say Pioneer educates many students who need private spaces to calm down when they're angry, scared and lashing out. Mainstream schools lack these spaces that Pioneer offers, as well as adequate numbers of adults who can help safely restrain kids who are in danger of hurting themselves or others.

Suzanne Cohen, president of the Portland Association of Teachers union, offered emotional testimony Tuesday against wholesale changes to programs without teachers' feedback.

The teachers' union is currently operating without a contract, and Cohen told the school board that the superintendent's decision on Pioneer is emblematic of the district's lack of cooperation with educators who have to implement district policy.

"You can do this without us and you can meet resistance or you can invite us," said Cohen, "and we can come up with solutions that meet everyone's needs."

In his statement late Wednesday, Guerrero said he heard the concern.

"We remain committed to the goal of offering a full continuum of services for special needs students in PPS," he wrote. "This is why we have continued exploring alternative sites while announcing a desire to expand services on comprehensive campuses. An additional facility has been identified to serve Pioneer secondary students and we are moving forward to make that option a reality. This will ensure students will be able to receive services either at a dedicated facility or at identified traditional schools as appropriate to students' individual needs."

Not everyone rejected the superintendent's goal of mainstreaming Pioneer's special-education students.

Bob Joondeph, executive director at Disability Rights Oregon, said there were upsides to Guerrero's original plan.

"Inclusive classrooms are the best way to prepare students with disabilities for the future, but that is not their only benefit," he wrote in a statement. "A well-supported inclusive classroom also enriches the lives of other students who get to know students with disabilities. And because students of color are often over-represented in special education programs, these changes could also make Portland schools less segregated by race and ethnic background.

"PPS's plan can work, but only if Pioneer students who are placed in neighborhood schools receive the quality classroom supports needed to ensure that they can excel in an integrated educational setting. We're hopeful that PPS will make that investment."

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