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Review faults program for talented students

Access at Sabin falls short in instructional hours, other areas
by: JIM CLARK, Nina Bell, one of five Access parents who filed a complaint last fall about Portland Public Schools’ alternative program for talented and gifted students, says the proposed fixes aren’t happening fast enough.

Portland Public Schools' Access program - the district's only separate program for talented and gifted children - is out of compliance with state standards on five counts, a recent report found.

Superintendent Vicki Phillips promises fixes will come as soon as this year, but at least one parent is not satisfied.

'We told the district all these problems existed five weeks into the school year,' said Nina Bell, one of five Access parents who filed the complaint in October, which spurred the review. 'They've known about it, they've now confirmed it and they still haven't done anything to resolve the problems. Their suggested solutions are pretty vague and very drawn-out over the next year. And that is unacceptable.'

Access, a district-operated alternative education program based at Sabin Elementary, 4013 N.E. 18th Ave., opened at Sabin in the fall of 2004; it now serves 116 students who've tested in the 99th percentile in reading, math or general intellectual ability.

The report found Access in compliance with many parts of the rules, but validated the complaint in five areas. Among them:

• The Access program does not meet legal requirements for hours of instruction. The Oregon Administrative Rules section on TAG learning requires a minimum of 900 instructional hours annually for grades four through eight.

Access provides a maximum of 815 hours of instruction for those grades, the report says. The deficit is equivalent to a 30-minute period each day.

• Access does not meet legal requirements for instructional content in health and physical education because it doesn't provide instruction in those areas, other than 30 minutes of PE per week and sex education for grades six through eight, with parental consent.

• Regarding classroom instruction for grades four through eight, the Access program 'did not appear to address their individually assessed levels of learning and accelerated rates of learning,' the report states.

'It is not clear how TAG identification and other assessment results are used to develop appropriate academic instructional programs that address each TAG identified student's assessed levels of learning and accelerated rates of learning.'

The report was submitted to Phillips on April 4 by Cliff Brush, the district's charter schools manager, and Ronda Craemer, former principal at King Elementary School.

In a written response dated April 9, Phillips said the district will work with Access staff to make scheduling adjustments, possibly add more minutes to the school day.

She said the district will support Access so that it has facilities, curriculum and instruction in health and PE, to be consistent with state rules, no later than January 2008. And she said that Access teachers and administrators are dedicated to serving their students, and that the district will work to implement the necessary actions to provide the level of instruction consistent with state rules.

She sent that response on to the state, explaining that she has staff now working on making further recommendations and expects that report by May 1. By late May, she said she'll make recommendations to a school board subcommittee, which will then make its recommendations to the full board. The full board will then address the issue.

Districtwide review in works

The scrutiny of the Access program is happening on a parallel track to a broader review under way of the TAG offerings districtwide.

Beginning this week, two officials from the state Department of Education will visit 31 schools to observe their TAG programs.

Beginning Wednesday, they will hold a series of parent meetings about Portland's TAG program, welcoming input from all. The first meeting is set for 7 p.m. at Cleveland High School.

Investigators also will review student records, hand out written surveys and solicit feedback from teachers and principals.

The purpose is to find out whether the TAG program is in compliance with Oregon Administrative Rules that govern its operation.

For example, the rules state that school officials must make efforts to identify all students - including ethnic minorities, disabled students and those with cultural differences or economic disadvantages - for TAG eligibility, which means scoring in the top 3 percent in reading, math or general intellectual ability on a standardized test.

Other rules are to have a written plan for each child's program and services, and to assess and record each participant's progress in all subject areas.

'We'll go into schools, talk to kids and teachers, look at records,' said Andrea Morgan, an ODE education specialist who will lead the review, aided part-time by Roberta Hutton, a former ODE assistant superintendent.

Morgan said she hopes to wrap up the investigation by the end of May, before school lets out.

She'll then prepare a report that will either show that the district is in compliance with the rules, or include orders that the district must take to be in compliance.

Changes may be forthcoming

The fate of the review potentially could bring changes to the way the district serves its 5,000 TAG students.

The current compliance review of TAG is the second one performed since Southeast Portland parent Margaret DeLacy and other parents sued the district over its TAG program 10 years ago.

The parents made several allegations, similar to those filed by the Access parents. Now, DeLacy maintains her vigil of the program, even though her three children are out of the public schools - two have graduated, and the youngest is in private school. She keeps a Web site on TAG issues (www.tagpdx.org), and regularly testifies at the Oregon Legislature about TAG education.

Among the other findings in the Access report:

• The district has failed to conduct an at-least-annual review of Access and has not provided the public a written copy of a review. Phillips said a review is under way; the district has contracted with Pacific Research and Evaluation to evaluate the program this school year and report back this summer.

• The district has not complied with alternative-education notification requirements. Most parents receive information about Access through personal referrals rather than district publications, according to the report, and the accuracy, availability and distribution of Access brochures are inconsistent.

Phillips said she believes the district is in compliance in this area but will improve its notification of the program.

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Vicki Phillips' April 2007 Response to the Oregon Department of Education