Like a square peg in a round hole, it's tough for some students to fit in a mainstream school.
In the case of Pioneer School in Southeast Portland, many staff and parents say their 136 special-education students fit better into their campus with its unusual round building than they ever will into the two rectangular buildings where Portland Public Schools plans to move them next fall.
The large site south of Mount Tabor, called the Holladay-Youngson campus, will be the new permanent home of ACCESS Academy. To make way, Pioneer will move to two smaller North Portland school sites: Applegate, currently home to a Head Start program; and Rice, which is now used for teacher office space and a small alternative high school program.
The relocation is loudly opposed by Pioneer staff and parents, and causing administrators to defend a plan whose many important details are far from established.
New PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero's supporters say this change has roots long before he came on board.
But the ability of the district's superintendent to navigate this first major controversy of his administration could have significant implications for his perceived trustworthiness in the community, and his ability to marshal Portland's famously outspoken school advocates in years to come.
Jeff McNeal, a Head Start teacher to some of the 77 low-income children at Applegate, said the superintendent promised to put the district's most at-risk students first.
"I feel like moving ACCESS to the Pioneer site and separating Pioneer and separating Applegate Head Start doesn't really go with that statement," McNeal said.
"I totally get how (Pioneer) staff and community are reacting," said board member Scott Bailey. "They weren't engaged. I think everybody in the district recognizes that. I don't blame anybody for being upset about this."
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The controversy has roots in the long-awaited return to middle schools from K-8 schools. Critics, including some now on the school board, say K-8 schools are inequitable because their small size means middle grade students get fewer class options. Shifting populations in the city have also led to unbalanced enrollment.
To fix these problems, the district wants to open two new middle schools and reopen Rose City Park School in Northeast Portland as a neighborhood elementary. Rose City Park currently houses ACCESS Academy, a special program for 336 of the district's talented and gifted students. ACCESS has been asking for a permanent home for years, and the board passed a resolution last fall to require the superintendent to find one.
"The challenges are that we've inherited a whole lot of stuff that we have to clean up," said board member Bailey. "In doing that, we have to find a new home for ACCESS and we just don't have very many buildings that can do that."
The original pick — the Humboldt school that's been home to Kairos PDX charter school for students of color — was rejected after that community rose up.
"In a big district, one move or one decision a while back can have this domino effect on many programs," said school board member Julie Esparza Brown. Regardless of the controversy, she said, the decision to move Pioneer is final. "Now it's up to us to make sure that the programs are high quality."
Pioneer staff: 'PPS discriminates'
Guerrero's decision to move ACCESS Academy students to the Pioneer campus on Southeast 71st Avenue south of Division Street has been unpopular since it was announced in November, and the criticism isn't going away.
A white paper written by Pioneer staff and widely distributed at the end of January criticizes the plan in great detail, calling it discriminatory against the district's "most vulnerable students with disabilities" in favor of its "most academically and intellectually privileged students."
According to district statistics cited in the document, 99.3 percent of Pioneer students fall into some category of "underserved," either through their ethnicity, medical needs, income or English proficiency. In contrast, 28.3 percent of ACCESS students meet these criteria. Teachers say almost half of Pioneer students are in foster care and nearly all have experienced major trauma. In contrast, they argue, ACCESS students almost all live at home, are members of the English-speaking white majority, and have more economic and psychological resources.
Yvonne Curtis, the district's assistant superintendent in charge of instruction, came over to PPS in January from the Forest Grove School District, where a heated controversy over its behavioral school made for a lot of criticism of her leadership.
Curtis said more and more students are experiencing early trauma and soon all school staff are going to need to learn how to manage their behaviors.
"Education is shifting in many ways," she said, adding that framing the debate as one group of students against another "misaligns the conversation."
District administrators and school board members have repeatedly tried to assure the Pioneer community that this change will actually improve services, but few are buying it.
"Why should anyone believe that?" wonders Suzanne Cohen, Portland Association of Teachers union president, noting that the district — granted, under different leadership — doesn't have a good track record with keeping promises. "I definitely feel for the district. Movement will need to happen, (but) should it be our most vulnerable students?"
Superintendent Guerrero says it's unfortunate that the narrative has become privileged versus unprivileged, because everyone is having to make sacrifices in these moves.
"The fact that people are frustrated is understandable," Guerrero said in an interview with the Tribune. "We don't have the benefit of a bunch of available buildings. We have the buildings that we have."
Guerrero and his team say they are trying to look at this challenge as an opportunity to dream something new for the district's response to the spectrum of students' special education needs.
"We have a lot of work to do as a school system to have a full continuum" of special education services, the superintendent said.
He started at the district Oct. 1, moving over from the San Francisco United School District.
Mary Pearson, who leads the district's special education services, said she wants to use the resources being made available to retrofit the Applegate and Rice sites to build spaces that suit students' needs.
"I feel like there's opportunity there and we're looking forward to engaging with the community in that process," Pearson said. She notes that widely respected programs — such as Serendipity Center, a therapeutic school in Southeast Portland — do not require the sort of square footage that Pioneer has to create a quality program.
Protesters at board chair's house, workplace
Pioneer staff and supporters have rallied to show their strong opposition at four board meetings.
Last week, disappointed at the board's support of the superintendent's plan, they stepped up to what they call Phase 2 of their civil disobedience: distributing leaflets in the neighborhood of Board Chair Julia Brim-Edwards and showing up at her workplace, Nike.
Brim-Edwards criticized the leaflets for being unsigned and for containing false information. She said protestors have more appropriate venues for expressing their concerns.
Pioneer supporters are not backing down. They plan to ramp up their actions until the district changes its mind, seeing hope in Kairos PDX charter school's success in rebuffing ACCESS' move to their building.
When Applegate preschool parents ask McNeal what they can do, he tells them: "Make history repeat itself and do what Kairos did."
Facilities lack kitchens, play spaces
Though called a school and housed on a single campus for 15 years, Pioneer School is actually a special education "program." It's how the district educates its students with some of the highest behavioral needs.
For that reason, district officials argue, the district is under no legal obligation to house the program in any particular location. But parents are crying foul, saying that such a dramatic shift in facilities violates the provisions of their students' Individualized Education Programs, a legal requirement for special education.
The K-5 students and one 6-8 class will go to Applegate, with the rest of the middle and high schoolers going to Rice.
Built during the mid-1950s baby boom, neither facility has a kitchen, cafeteria, gym, or playground. Rice does not have a library and Applegate's library is in disrepair.
The schools do each have a "multipurpose" room that can be used as those spaces. Hot lunches will be delivered and library services will be delivered to the older students. In addition, adjacent public parks will serve as play spaces and a new play structure will be added to Applegate.
None of this assuages the concerns of Pioneer parent Stephanie Dazer.
"I still maintain that they are wasting resources to change all of these buildings that are already customized to serve special populations," Dazer said, arguing that the sites are ill-suited for a wide range of reasons, including noise from the nearby airport and adjacent train tracks. "Kids at Pioneer, especially those on the autism spectrum, can be extremely sensitive to sound. Both the frequent trains passing and jets will interrupt their learning regularly and be a source of escalation of undesirable behaviors."
How much all of this will cost taxpayers is another pressing question without a clear answer.
Bailey, the school board member, said he hasn't seen budget figures yet. "Pretty much anything we did was going to cost money," he said.
District officials are still working on cost estimates for the upgrade, which must be completed before the 2018-19 school year.
Staff say the split-up schools will cost a lot more money to operate, too. Specialized staff are hard to come by. Substitute teachers, paraeducators, therapists and other staff are often pulled — sometimes at a moment's notice — from across the 13 grades at the current Pioneer campus.
"That back and forth and really feeling like a family is pretty unique," said K-2 special education teacher Laramie Stabler. "As staff, we made it clear to the superintendent — you can't just replicate our staff. We rely on each other all the time. We have some students who require two, three, four people to hold them safely."
Pearson said that during the last recession the Pioneer program shrank from four administrators to one, and this will simply be the district adding back lost capacity.
But Stabler still feels that the Pioneer community is getting the short end of the stick, and it's because there are fewer of them and they are less influential.
"It's hard for our parents to advocate," she said. "There's a lot that want to, but they don't have cars, or they work multiple jobs. They don't have the voices and the money that the ACCESS parents had to advocate for their kids."
Pioneer teacher on special assignment Dennis Moist said the central office folks don't understand how important the building's wide hallways and special de-escalation and sensory spots are to the well-being of the students.
"They need that dignity," Moist said. "Some of them try to attack each other because they're trying to escape that (feeling of shame)."
He can't imagine how the long, narrow hallways in the new schools will be anything but a recipe for disaster.
"(Kids in time-out) in one, long hallway, they're going to feed off of each other," he said. "We feel like we're just falling on deaf ears."
Pioneer supporters are rallying next Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at Portland State University. More details: www.facebook.com/events/178618942749948/
UPDATE (2/8/18): This version has clarified comments made by Julia Brim-Edwards.
Shasta Kearns Moore
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