Portland Public Schools (PPS) is a massive school district, so it makes sense that it has countless programs that most people have never heard of. The Student Success Center (SSC) is one of those programs. Based in the Rice building in northeast Portland, SSC is a three week, half day course offered to students as an alternative to expulsion from PPS. The program serves sixth through 12th grade students, all at SSC for different reasons.
When a student does something that could possibly get them expelled, they have a hearing. If the student is willing to change their behavior, their hearings officer can give them the option to attend SSC for three weeks and then return to school instead of being expelled. At the hearing, parents can appeal the decision to send the student to SSC and provide an “alternative plan.” In this case, the alternative plan must be approved by the district to be equally sufficient to the material covered at SSC. For example, weekly therapy appointments would not equate to the three weeks at SSC.
If the student and their family agrees to go to SSC, a hearing results letter will be sent to Ambar Olivas, the Head Counselor and Program Coordinator at SSC. This letter provides extensive student information, including the student’s grades, transcript, and discipline record. Once the student is on file, an intake appointment is scheduled to introduce the student and their parents and/or guardians to the program. At the intake meeting, the family will be informed of the expectations and rules set at SSC, introduced to the teaching material, and given an opportunity to have any questions answered. If the student is at SSC for a drug or alcohol violation, they will also receive a Urine Analysis (UA) test at the meeting. Students typically begin their three weeks on the following Monday after their intake appointment.
A day at SSC consists of a community meeting in the morning and three classes with a thirty minute break in the middle for an “organized activity,” says Olivas. On Tuesdays, a nurse visits to teach a lesson during the organized activity block of the day. On other days, students may play a group game during this time. The first class of the day is Emotional Regulation. In this class, Olivas says that students learn about feelings and emotions, coping mechanisms, relaxation techniques, triggers and anger risk situations. The second class of the day, Healthy Choices, covers drug and alcohol education for the first two weeks then child pornography laws, consent, flirting vs. sexual harassment and healthy relationships for the third week. Conflict Resolution is the third and final class, covering conflict and communication styles, receiving and giving feedback, and healthy communication methods.
For some high schoolers, the work feels to be intended for a younger age group. “It’s humiliating being there as a senior. It’s humiliating being there when I’m 18,” says Key Coleman (12), former SSC student. Coleman’s hearings officer at Benson Polytechnic High School gave Coleman the opportunity to go to the Student Success Center for three weeks instead of being expelled. Other SSC students share Coleman’s sentiment. “The whole program doesn’t do anything to actually help the kids. The lessons are elementary [level],” says Alex Howerton (10), from Franklin High School (FHS). Despite believing that the Student Success Center is not an effective program, Howerton sees that the staff at SSC are truly passionate about their jobs. “The teachers really do care about you and they do try to help you succeed,” says Howerton.
Olivas has worked in various fields related to mental health, counseling and substance use prior to her time with PPS. “I love SSC because I feel like it’s a bit of both. I get to do some of the mental health components, some of the addiction components, and it’s not in a regular school setting,” says Olivas. She continues on to say, “I’ve always been about helping people. I love helping people.” With such passionate and qualified staff, it comes as a surprise to many that students are not feeling the intended success of the program.
Much of the students’ frustration comes from missing three weeks of school. “I have four classes a day, and I’m not allowed to go to three of them or I get expelled,” laments Coleman. SSC releases students at 12:30p.m., at which point students return to their school. For high schoolers, the third period of the day ends at 1:37p.m.. Depending on the commute from the Rice site to the student’s school, they may not arrive until third period is nearly over. The half-day schedule at the Student Success Center is a huge change from a typical high school routine. Coleman states that, “It was really, really hard the first week. The second week sucked, but I got more adjusted to it…Really the whole adjust[ment] is just, stop thinking about the classes that you’re missing and stop worrying about all the work that you’re missing.” Olivas believes that as long as students are putting time and effort into learning and making good use of flex and tutorial times to meet with their teachers, they shouldn’t have much trouble maintaining their grades. (Flex and tutorial days are when regular high school classes are shorter than normal and the last hour of the day is set aside for students to go visit their teachers and get extra help or catch up on late or missing work. Another difference is that there are three classes before lunch as opposed to two before and two after lunch. “A student is going to get out of the program what they put in to it,” says Olivas.
However, no matter how responsible a student is with their time, it can be difficult to use opportunities like tutorial if they are few and far between. During his three weeks away from Benson, Coleman says that there were only two flex days. Additionally, shorter classes makes timing more difficult than the usual day at SSC. Since students don’t get out of SSC until 12:30, and on flex days lunch starts at 12:20. Not all teachers allow eating in class, so students sometimes need to choose between eating lunch and going to class.
There are never more than fifteen students at the Student Success Center at a time. Often, there are only a handful of students at once. In a district with tens of thousands of students, most of them will never even hear about SSC. Due to the low percentage of students in PPS that attend the program, it is not as extensive as it used to be. Olivas mentions that the Student Success Center is based on a previous PPS program called Turnaround. This program was bigger in multiple areas. Students went to Turnaround for 45 days and had access to academics on site in addition to social and emotional learning. Over time, funding for Turnaround got cut until it morphed into the Student Success Center that exists today. While SSC does not receive an excess of resources, they do have a multitude of supports available to students while they are there.
Resources for students at SSC include a wellness room, an on-site therapist, snacks, and fidgets. The wellness room is a space where students can relax and rest. Students are allowed to take as many breaks as they want as often as they want. The wellness room is one of three classrooms in the Rice building utilized by SSC. The other two classrooms that SSC uses serve as the main classroom, where students spend the majority of their time, and an office space for instructors. The rest of the building serves as offices and meeting rooms for various district employees. “We want kids back in school, graduating, doing well, whatever we can do to support that. That’s our main goal,” states Olivas.
While the program serves students from middle through high school, in recent years there have been mostly eighth and ninth graders. Olivas says this data varies every year. Most of the students at SSC are there for drug and alcohol violations. However, students can get referred for a multitude of reasons. Completion of the program earns high school students half an elective or health credit. Chromebooks are available for students to work on classwork while they are there. While SSC offers many resources, there is a lot of room for improvement. Olivas advocates for better transition support when students return to their normal schools as a top priority in regards to program improvement. “Once a student goes back to school…being able to check in with them more often, help new schools build behavior support plans, just doing a better job of transition support…We don’t have the staff capacity to really do that,” says Olivas.
“Overall, how we look at discipline as a school district is a big thing. How we look at…other options, what that can look like for students. I think that there [are] a lot of different things that can be changed, that can be made better, more effective…I have so many different ideas, and I’m sure administrators have their own ideas of what could be better or different. I’m sure students have their own idea of what could be better or different,” says Olivas. There are many different factors that go into individual success at SSC. Without more funding for additional staff and resources, not a whole lot is going to change anytime soon. The PPS student success narrative is much larger than the Student Success Center alone.