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ACCESS Academy seeks new home in space-starved district

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Portland Public might break up the TAG program to allow more access.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Rose City Park School in Northeast Portland is slated to become a neighborhood school to relieve overcrowding, but where to put ACCESS Academy is unclear. The ACCESS Academy, Portland’s school for its highest-IQ students with extra needs, is still looking for a new home — or possibly multiple homes.

The district is looking at where to locate the school — currently in Northeast Portland’s Rose City Park School, which was slated last spring to become a neighborhood K-5 school. Humboldt School, next to Jefferson High School in North Portland, is the recommended choice, but a council of parents object and would rather keep ACCESS at Rose City Park for at least another year.

A district report says ACCESS needs at least 17 classrooms, plus extra space for its “walk-to-math” program and ideally could use 20 classrooms. Parents say Humboldt, with 21 classrooms, is too small to allow the school to grow.

Humboldt currently houses a public charter school and special education classes, which some worry would get displaced unnecessarily.

There are no good options in a district starved for space — Beverly Cleary K-8 School is growing too and needs more room at Rose City Park.

But some are wondering if ACCESS should be a stand-alone school at all. The program could look more like Summa, Beaverton’s middle-grade program for talented-and-gifted-identified (TAG) students, which is split over five campuses. That might give the Portland district more flexibility — and more access to the hundreds of students on the waitlist for ACCESS and the thousands of students activists say are likely languishing unidentified in classrooms. Summa, unlike ACCESS, has no cap on enrollment.

Julie Esparza Brown, chairwoman of the school board’s Teaching and Learning Committee, encouraged administrators to explore the model and determine if it would work for Portland.

Summa has hundreds of students who must apply to the program. Last year, Portland Public Schools began universal testing of its second graders to provide for identification of highly intelligent students without the need for a parent or teacher nomination, a process that had been criticized for disproportionately identifying white children. ACCESS also is poised to accept qualified students via lottery in first and second grades, before the universal testing, which a district report says “poses an issue for promoting equitable enrollment, as there are fewer opportunities for underserved families to find out about, qualify for, and apply to ACCESS in earlier grades.”

Talented and Gifted Advisory Council Chair Scholle Sawyer McFarland said the Summa model could work but worries that it is only for middle grade students, when children need to be reached in elementary school.

“That’s where the greatest demand is in fact,” she said.

The district says it does have a TAG Scholars program at Ainsworth, Bridger, Chapman, Llewellyn and Forest Park schools, but critics say it offers very little. The district also has a policy that each school should have a plan for how to meet their TAG students’ rate and level of learning, regardless of age.

TAG Advisory Council member Mark Feldman says neighborhood schools’ ability to offer TAG services is far from ideal.

“Nothing we have now and nothing I can see in the future as far as TAG services would satisfy the needs of these students,” Feldman said.

Parents also raised the issue of “twice-exceptional” kids — those who are TAG-identified in addition to needing special education accommodations.

Nicole Iroz-Elardo, who has a complaint pending against the district regarding her special-needs son’s barred entry to ACCESS, urged the committee to think about special-education needs in its plans for relocation.

“If you want them to mainstream, you want them to mainstream into an engaging class at their rate and level,” Iroz-Elardo said, adding her belief that the district has starved ACCESS for space. “The results are really tough decisions ... Parents are being forced to fight over scraps.”

The Teaching and Learning Committee is expected to take up the ACCESS location issue at its Nov. 29 meeting at 3:30 p.m. at the district office.


Shasta Kearns Moore
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EDIT: This story has been changed from the original to reflect Iroz-Elardo has filed a complaint, not a lawsuit. Also, the lottery system of acceptance is not yet in effect.