Oregon Department of Education will review parent group's complaint about access to TAG curriculum at Portland Public Schools

A complaint filed with Portland Public Schools over its past noncompliance with state rules for the talented and gifted (TAG) curriculum has been escalated to the Oregon Department of Education.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Morgan Kubler, a Portland Public Schools student, addresses the school board Aug. 13 during its review of a complaint related to talented and gifted programming. Behind Kubler, parents stand in support of demand for better resources for TAG students. Thirty five parents filed complaints with the school district on April 29, asserting PPS doesn't devote enough resources like staffing, funding and program development to TAG students in the district. Since then, PPS has investigated and responded to the complaint. Unhappy with the district's response, parents appealed to the school board, which voted to uphold the superintendent's findings. The complaint now is under state review.

Currently, PPS estimates it has more than 7,000 students who qualify for TAG-oriented education — that is, those who require education beyond what's normally provided, and "demonstrate outstanding ability or potential" in intellectual ability and/or show an unusual ability in reading or mathematics.

The Portland school district has acknowledged that it did not meet the Oregon Department of Education's standards for TAG curriculum, but PPS staff say the district is now in compliance.

"This will be the fourth consecutive year the district has failed to meet the state laws that require appropriate education for above- benchmark, highly capable students," a group of Portland parents said after escalating their complaint within the district.

Margaret DeLacy, president of the Oregon Association for Talented and Gifted, said her nonprofit organization is often a first stop for parents of TAG students who need information and resources.

"We often interact with anybody who has questions about the process," DeLacy explained. "We are interested in supporting implementation of the Oregon TAG mandate."

Whether PPS is meeting the criteria of the TAG mandate remains a point of contention.

Complaint: Staffing, training, budget

The initial complaint lists issues like insufficient staff within the TAG department at PPS; a "lack of commitment" among teachers to write individual instructional learning plans for students; and a lack of sufficient training for TAG teachers and assistants, coupled with inadequate communication to families and students about the programs in place. Parents also cited an "unnecessarily complex process" for single-subject acceleration in courses.

In response to the complaint, PPS acknowledged and agreed with many of the assertions made by parents, but also pointed to gaps in state policy and within the district's own practices, that lead to inconsistency in how TAG students are served.

"Oregon TAG law does not specify what exact documentation a teacher needs to provide services for TAG students," Aurora Terry, PPS's senior director of College and Career Readiness in the Office of Teaching and Learning, stated in response to the complaint. Terry was assigned to investigate the complaint.

Oregon law doesn't require individualized instructional plans for TAG students unless a parent requests one, Terry said. If a plan is requested, teachers have 30 days to craft one and are compensated via stipend for their services.

The parents behind the complaint also point to "inconsistent and inequitable access to services and appropriate classes" across school sites at every level.

That's true, Terry said.

"Currently there is not a systemwide approach to instructional practices for talented and gifted students in classrooms across Portland Public Schools," Terry concluded. "Targeted TAG instructional practices vary by campus and teacher. In 2019, PPS will again self-report being out of compliance in the Division 22 area of meeting rate and level of TAG students in the instructional setting."

Those "inconsistent" practices are largely responsible for why parents and students say TAG programming within the district isn't up to par.

"To make change happen in classrooms, there needs to be some centralizing of approach to teaching different groups of students," said Megan Robertson, a parent who helped file the complaint. Robertson said the problem with the district's inability to fully serve its TAG students is that those students aren't getting the education they need and aren't being engaged. She said TAG students often are misunderstood and get left behind when people assume they have an advantage over their peers.

"This is not an elite group of kids who are already smoothly sailing through school," Robertson said. "It's easy to say, 'Oh, the kids will just be bored and not be challenged or engaged ...' but what I'm talking about is, these kids are actually in crisis. They're undiagnosed. They may have a learning disability, or come from a minority background and get on this behavioral track."

Parents and students also say for the most part, advanced or accelerated classes aren't available to students until they reach high school.

District lays out plan

In its response to the complaint, the district laid out a five-step, five-year plan to improve identification and screening of TAG students, professional development for staff and better curriculum development, with more room for the creation of individualized education plans.

Terry also pointed to "plans to address access for students" via a guaranteed and viable core curriculum model the district is using, to try to ensure that all students get access to a comprehensive, rich and rigorous learning experience.

But the school district's plans for improvement don't go far enough, parents said, and PPS failed to respond to their concerns about lack of access to accelerated courses.

During the school board's review of the formal complaint Aug. 13, board member Andrew Scott said, as a father of a TAG student, he sympathized with the parents' concerns.

"I think what we're saying is, 'it's clear we're failing these students,'" Scott said. "We are failing students across the board. "

Some parents and teachers who addressed the board during the review advocated for practices like using cluster grouping as cost-free, easy solutions to delivering curriculum to TAG students.

Parents and students say advanced or accelerated courses largely are unavailable to PPS students until they reach high school. They say the district's five-year plan doesn't do anything to immediately address students' needs.

"I will be a senior before TAG services are implemented," one PPS student told the board.

Linda Smith, TAG director for the district, said the district's plan "is for best practices."

"Our plan, moving forward is to deliver equitable access to TAG students," Smith added.

She said the TAG program also will see the benefit of private donor funds.

"We have a donor who is going to allow us to fund some professional development that we wouldn't have been able to," Smith told the board during its complaint review.

According to spending data provided by PPS, the district falls somewhere in the middle when it comes to spending per student for TAG programming. PPS spends about $5.17 per student, compared with Gresham-Barlow, which spends $2.70, and the David Douglas School District, which spends $9.27.

In 2018, PPS budgeted about $1.18 million toward its TAG programs, but its latest proposed budget would push that number down to $1.01 million.

Board member Rita Moore said the solution will require more than just throwing money at the problem.

"It seems to me there are some things that could be done in the short term that would not necessarily require new money. It would require that the central office exert some centralization," Moore said, to applause from the audience.

Parents say the district has 30 days to respond to the state's request for a written response. After that, the state Education Department has 90 days to review the matter.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Margaret DeLacy. DeLacy is the president of the Oregon State Association for Talented and Gifted. The story has also been updated to reflect the correct term for TAG instructional learning plans.

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