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School for gifted students hard to ACCESS

Parents' TAG survey results point to 'areas of concern'


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - David Holm, the P.E./math/wellness teacher at ACCESS, helps student Gabriel Shepard with a math assignment. Students and teachers hope to move into a new space by fall, as PPS leaders have promised. Michael Ioffe is only 13, but he’s already published his first book.

The eighth-grader at ACCESS Alternative School worked with 30 of his peers to compile and edit a 250-page soft-cover book called “Legacies,” published last week by his parents’ publishing company, Ioffe Press.

The collection of short narratives is “some of the best you can find written by eighth-graders,” Michael says. “No adult had anything to do with it. It shows kids can do stuff, too.”

The book sells for $19 at bookpdx.com, and all of the proceeds will go to ACCESS School to help with the search for a new site.

For several years, the ACCESS community has been searching for room to grow to meet the program’s demand.

The school is open to all eligible students in the district: those who score in the top 99th percentile and are able to demonstrate on their enrollment application that their needs aren’t being met at their school.

Enrollment is also limited by the building’s capacity.

ACCESS enrolls 220 students in grades one through eight; another 72 were turned away this school year due to a lack of space.

Since its inception in 2004, ACCESS has been co-located at Sabin School in Northeast Portland, but both schools have grown and have no more room to expand.

The ACCESS community thought it was finally on its way to a new home last month — only to get delayed by the Portland School Board.

The board had considered a proposal to move ACCESS to the King School campus this fall, as part of the Jefferson cluster enrollment balancing process.

But the board balked at the last minute, questioning how that move would also support the King School community.

Now, ACCESS is back to square one, with a promise from the district that they’ll be able to move — somehow, somewhere — by this fall.

Out in the cold

The school’s space constraints are hard to imagine without seeing it in person.

ACCESS is housed at the north end of the Sabin campus, its entrance accessible through a hard-to-find door marked by a tiny temporary sign.

The school office and four classrooms are carved out of Sabin’s space, but most of the

ACCESS classrooms are held in four burnt-orange portable classrooms at the rear of the school.

Two of the portables have accordion-style doors that separate the classrooms, so noise from the other side is a constant factor. Two classrooms in the building also have accordion doors.

The cramped science room is attached to the main office, and the room for advanced math class is attached to Sabin’s day care room.

The heaters in the portables produce a loud hum that can’t be turned off; the windows don’t open; and one portable is accessible only by a short flight of stairs — so anyone using a wheelchair can’t enter and neither can the rolling laptop cart, the school’s only computer lab.

Students in that class must use either the teacher’s computer or one of the three decade-old Macs that sit in the corner of the classroom, each affixed with its own label: “Internet (accessible),” “no Internet” and “ancient.”

Students and teachers roll their eyes at the facility situation.

“It’s kind of crazy, but you get used to it,” says Ella Gleason, 13, an eighth-grader who started at access in third grade.

Like her classmate Michael, the editor in chief of the book “Legacies,” Ella wants to help future generations of ACCESS students learn in better conditions.

She’s also concerned about equity. If ACCESS at least had the capacity for two third-grade classrooms, she says, it might increase the number of students of color at the school.

That’s because all PPS students are tested for TAG qualification in second grade. If some of those students from diverse backgrounds apply for ACCESS and show their needs aren’t being met at their school, the district could be serving those students more equitably.

Principal Eryn Bagby, in her second year, says it’d be ideal for ACCESS to have two classrooms per grade, which would put the school at about 320 students.

Yet according to a fall memo from the district’s transfer and enrollment office, the “target size” for ACCESS is 250 students.

Transfer and Enrollment Director Judy Brennan says her office is “actively looking at modifying the criteria and considering sites that may not have seemed probable before.”

Brennan says there’s no hard timeline for deciding the new site, but “sooner is definitely better than later.” Enrollment at

ACCESS is on hold until the new site is decided, since the school’s capacity is unknown.

Since it is a program placement decision, she says, the siting won’t require board-level action.

Bagby says it’s her personal preference to co-locate at another PPS school where both schools can benefit.

In the past year, she says some Sabin students have taken advanced math classes at ACCESS and some ACCESS students have taken Spanish at Sabin.

Bagby also sees the potential to share lunch time and recess for more socialization opportunities at the new space.

And David Holm, the P.E./math/wellness teacher at

ACCESS, looks forward to the day he can teach a P.E. class in the school gym, rather than outside in the cold and rain.

The gym is only available to ACCESS two mornings per week, which makes it hard to fit everyone in. Some middle schoolers have never had P.E. in the gym.

“There’s not even an option to come inside to keep warm,” Holm says. “We’re literally out in the cold.”

Feeling positive about TAG

Despite the facility squeeze, ACCESS families feel better about their TAG child’s education than families at other schools, according to results of the parent survey of TAG services, conducted last summer.

The results, which were made available this month, show that ACCESS parents’ responses were uniformly positive on all 14 questions.

No other school’s responses were positive for more than eight questions.

Most of the survey data is glaring. For example:

Eighty-three percent of PPS parents feel that the TAG services at their child’s school had no impact on improving their child’s academic performance.

80 percent of parents feel that their child does not receive appropriate learning opportunities and challenges.

80 percent feel that their child is not provided with many opportunities to work with peers who have similar abilities.

85 percent feel that their child receives inconsistent TAG services and that the quality of the services is dependent on who their child has for a teacher.

The survey reflects what most parents, teachers and principals already know — that TAG students have fallen through the cracks in the midst of dwindling resources and a lack of training in how to “differentiate” instruction to accommodate students across such a wide spectrum.

The survey findings reflect about 22 percent of the 8,000 TAG-identified students’ families. No school’s responses accounted for more than 5 percent of the total survey responses.

Some of the responses were positive, for example:

91 percent feel that in general, their TAG child has a positive attitude.

62 percent of parents do not worry that they are overwhelming their child’s teacher, or negatively impacting their child’s relationship with the teacher by asking how tasks and assignments meet their child’s rate and level of learning.

55 percent feel that their child’s classroom teachers understand the characteristics of gifted students and the needs of their child.

Brenda Ray Scott, the parent coordinator of the TAG advisory committee, says the survey was the first in a series of information-gathering efforts.

The hope, she says, is to work collaboratively with principals, teachers and parent leaders to support schools in the work that needs to be done.

Based on the survey results as well as other school data and parent input, the TAG advisory council has set four priorities for their work.

They are to improve communication; to increase equity in TAG identification and parental involvement; to increase access to curriculum, especially for middle and high school students; and to continue giving teachers the tools they need to instruct TAG students in their classrooms.