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South Portland surfaces as sweet spot for non-traditional schools

Neighborhood with no public schools has seven alternative, independent and charter schools


by: CONNECTION PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - A Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences student Elijah Karnes works on writing his book.

There are no public schools in South Portland. But while children who live in this Southwest Portland neighborhood leave to attend Capitol Hill Elementary and Jackson Middle schools, others from throughout Portland are coming here en masse to be educated, for a 3.5-mile stretch of land in South Portland, known until 2006 as Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill, is home to seven alternative, independent and charter schools:

• Sunstone Montessori School, 6318 SW Corbett Ave.

• L’Etoile French Immersion School Maternelle, 5839 SW Hood Ave.

• The International School Early Childhood campus, 5210 SW Corbett Ave.

• A Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences, 0234 SW Bancroft St.

• Southwest Charter School, 0640 SW Bancroft St.

• Cedarwood Waldorf School, 3030 SW Second Ave.

• Summa Academy, 2510 SW First Ave.

Four of these have opened just in the last year. How — and why — is this the case?

Central location

For one thing, South Portland “is relatively central to students from downtown and the West Hills,” said Will Fuller, chairman of the Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. (SWNI) Schools Committee.

“We always wanted to be in a central location,” said Amber Kara, executive director at Summa Academy. “We didn’t choose South Portland as a neighborhood; we simply chose … to be centrally located, and this is where we could find a building that was centrally located.”

“We’re actually pretty centrally located now, so that’s nice,” said Anne Gurnee, education director of Southwest Charter School. “I think that it does facilitate drawing from all over the city, which is nice; we like that.”

It would certainly seem so. “We have kids who come from all over — all four quadrants of the city,” Gurnee said. “We also have students come from outside the district from Tigard, Beaverton … Gresham; we have one student who comes down from St. Helens … We have a couple families from Hillsboro … as far as Portland goes … we actually were pulling a lot more from Southeast than Southwest.”

Similarly, “Ours come from Gresham, from Vancouver, from Beaverton and Lake Oswego and all points in between … so the Ross Island Bridge makes us very easy for access to both Southeast and inner Northeast … the freeway comes down and dumps off … it certainly allows for that as a traffic flow too.

Conducive facilities

Buildings centrally located in Portland are necessarily housed near or along the bank of the east or west side of the Willamette River. There are many such buildings throughout the city, but South Portland, Fuller said, “may have more available buildings suitable for schools.”

When A Renaissance School, which first opened in 2009, sought a new location to accommodate its growing student population, “We really wanted to stay in Northwest, Northeast, something that was a direct connection to see the city,” said A Renaissance School Design and Sciences Director Susan Dunn, “but the trick would be zoning or occupancy … air quality is a really big consideration.”

“The city has requirements about the kind of building you have to occupy as a school,” Kara said, “and this particular area of town has more of those types of buildings than other close-in neighborhood options.”

She added: “There are also newer buildings over here that were built for the kind of use that makes them easily converted for school use, whereas in the Eastside a lot of the buildings were built as warehouses or shops or things that would be harder to convert to the proper building code for a school.”

This was the primary factor behind the decision to open Southwest Charter School there in 2010. When the school’s powers that be first set out to find a permanent location in 2007, they didn’t realize “how difficult it is to find a facility that will accommodate a school,” Gurnee said.

The city of Portland Bureau of Development Services stipulates that, “Unless they are located in an area with a fire sprinkler system, classrooms used for children need to be on the ground floor … and each room used by children needs to have at least one exit directly to the outside at ground level.”

And, it says, “Locating a … school in many existing buildings would require that the entire building be seismically upgraded,” because “Retail, office, warehouse or manufacturing buildings are all classified as lower hazard occupancies than an E,” which is the building code classification for schools for more than five children who are older than 2 1/2 years old.

A connection to Southwest

As its name might suggest, while seeking out a permanent home for Southwest Charter School, “Southwest was always our hope,” Gurnee said. “When we started, there were about 27 public educational options — either focus option schools or charter schools — on the Eastside compared to six on the Westside … and so we wanted to be another option in Southwest; Southwest in particular had very few.”

In the end, Southwest Charter School found a home in Portland’s burgeoning South Waterfront District.

“South Waterfront was kind of a depressed area with a lot empty buildings; it was larger,” Gurnee explained. “Southwest Portland is essentially a bedroom community; there’s not a lot of industry or the kind of buildings that could potentially house a school … but South Waterfront was different in that regard.”

One year ago, Sunstone Montessori School moved into a 1928 building in Johns Landing owned by Portland Public Schools and formerly occupied by Portland French School.

“Because we were on two separate campuses in Southwest Portland… one that was in Multnomah Village and one that was off Southwest Shattuck Road on Beaverton Hillsdale Highway … we wanted to come together in one building,” said Head of School Cathy Newman. “The combination of this being … a former school and still in Southwest and really nicely located … was all just perfect.”

Newman said the fact that the majority of Sunstone Montessori’s student population hails from the Southwest Portland area influenced the decision to move to the new location, but for all students, whether Southwest Portlanders or commuters from Newberg, it seems to be conducive to learning.

“We’re in a wonderful setting here,” she said. “Our kids walk down to the river; they go over to Willamette Park. Our upper elementary classroom, fourth- through sixth-grade, have been working with Willamette Riverkeepers on projects down by the river, and we plan to continue that and hopefully get more of our classes involved in other life around South Portland.”

Serendipity

While Sunstone Montessori and Southwest Charter School moved to South Portland sites because they were eager to set up shop in Southwest, for A Renaissance School, it was a happy accident.

Initially, “Southwest was not even on our radar,” said Literacy Director Sally Wells. by: CONNECTION PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - A Renaissance School co-director Sally Wells sits with Rohan Yamin in the school's new home overlooking the Willamette River.

“We had exhausted Northwest, gone to a site in Northeast that we almost purchased … then we approached some people in Southeast and that was very short-lived and that point we didn’t have any other options other than to look in Southwest,” Dunn said. “And that’s when we thought, ‘Oh, my gosh … this whole trail of buildings has led us to this space.'”

It took two years and a sizable capital campaign, but after only one day in the school’s newly renovated Lair Hill location, Dunn and Wells could tell it had been well worth it. They like, they said, the building’s view of the Willamette River and exposure to natural light and having well-designed homes nearby to use as examples in lessons about architecture and engineering. They are glad to be accessible by bus and trolley as well as the Oregon Health & Sciences University Aerial Tram and in the future, the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge, now being constructed. And they are thankful for their South Portland neighbors, who they say have welcomed them warmly.

“We have been connected to the city for four years,” Dunn said, “and we are not disconnected now.”