Special education programs in Portland Public Schools play a vital role in providing all students of varying needs a place where they can succeed and thrive in their environment. Whether these students are high achieving or high need, they deserve equitable treatment, which would require the district to cater to the needs of each student and not approach their educational model with a ‘one size fits all’ mentality. Unfortunately, this equitable treatment has not been received by some PPS students in recent months.
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero released a letter to the Pioneer Special School community in late November detailing his plans to displace the program to make room for Access Academy, PPS’s school program for Talented and Gifted students. Originally, he proposed splitting up Access, but because he received so much backlash from the Access community, he reconsidered. Guerrero wrote that the decision to displace the special education school from its home at the Holladay campus on 71st and Division was not an easy one, but that it would “increase students’ access to teachers with expertise in the core content areas.”
These changes that Guerrero plans to implement in the 2018-19 school year reveal major flaws in the way PPS provides for high-need students. It is apparent that Guerrero’s decision was made with an incredible lack of understanding of how the Pioneer program functions. He was under a lot of pressure from the Access community to find a building, and he made a rushed decision. The problem is in the way he has dealt with his mistake, not once admitting that he acted in an unthoughtful manner.
Guerrero’s negligence is the core problem of his proposed changes. According to Pioneer K-2 Intervention Specialist Jamie Horner, Guerrero visited Pioneer only once before he made his decision, and it wasn’t to assess how the program ran—it was a 15-minute walk-through to make sure the building was suitable for Access. It was determined that the space could fit the 336 Access students, displacing the 136 Pioneer students. “[Guerrero] is trying to make the argument that our building is underutilized, which it’s not,” Horner explained. “We don’t have a lot of students, but the students that we have have needs that take up that space.” She also noted that many Access parents have vocalized their lack of support for the Superintendent’s decision—they don’t want their program to be favored at the expense of Pioneer’s.
“Pioneer is an absolute necessity for many young students.”
Dan Havran, a Pioneer Therapeutic Intervention Coach, voiced his concerns about leaving the Holladay campus at the December 5 school board meeting. “There are characteristics to the Holladay Center building that, to some people, they might seem like they’re quirks, but to us, they’re de-escalation necessities,” he explained. Some of these ‘quirks’ include wall-to-wall carpeting and larger hallways. Evidently, the Holladay campus perfectly caters to the needs of Pioneer students, so why does it seem like a valid course of action to move them?
One of the main concerns from the Pioneer community is the proposed break-up of the three parts of the school: K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 grades. The school prides itself on creating a welcoming community for all learners, no matter their abilities, so by stripping away the unity into three different programs, the decision removes a necessary component of the way Pioneer functions. Originally, Guerrero proposed that the K-5 move to the Applegate School in North Portland while the middle and high schools would move into special education classrooms in general education buildings. However, after momentous backlash from the Pioneer community, Guerrero backtracked, stated that he was still looking for a location for the middle and high school students, and decided on Rice. This still would leave the two schools split up, and some students could be reintroduced to general education settings, which according to Horner, would be detrimental to their educational prospects.
“To drop these kids in—it’s totally reckless, not considering their well-being at all,” she explained. “Most of our staff has said they will not go with kids to Gen Ed buildings because it’s just going to re-traumatize them, and they don’t want to be a part of that.” The Pioneer staff see what the general education system can do to kids if they’re introduced when they’re not ready, and it is not something they want to witness their students, who they deeply care for, go through. “Pioneer is the last rung,” said Horner. “Kids that are [at Pioneer] have already been everywhere, and now we’re taking these kids that have finally found some sort of stability… we’re taking that away from them.”
Despite clear indications of this move by Guerrero being rushed and unthoughtful, some proponents of the Superintendent note that his decision moves the PPS special education system in a positive direction toward more inclusion and equity for the students within these programs. Many district level staff have used the word ‘restrictive’ to describe the Pioneer program, detailing how it gives students no exposure to a general education setting. Some have argued that the separation of students with special needs from the general education environment is not a valid practice.
The problem with this is argument is that this isolation of students is sometimes necessary for their success, as their needs often cannot be met in integrated, general education settings. Pioneer parent Karin Dean spoke about Pioneer being considered ‘restrictive’ in OPB’s Think Out Loud radio show on December 7. “It really, truly is the least restrictive environment that I can even conceive for a child like my son,” she explained.
Recklessly restructuring the one place that kids like Dean’s son can thrive is simply unacceptable. If the district needs to reorganize, there must be more planning and thought that is put into the decisions that are being made, because they have very real consequences that obviously have been overlooked. The community should be involved in the process of restructuring the school because they are the ones who know best about needs of the students. “We the staff of Pioneer propose a respectful and collaborative discussion,” said Christopher Marquardt, a Pioneer middle school teacher. The love that Pioneer staff feel for their students is clear. They only want the best for their kids, and the Holladay campus is the perfectbuilding for the school’s special education program to succeed.
This decision to displace high need students in favor of the high achieving is an example of how Guerrero is fostering a false appearance of equity. In reality, he is furthering the marginalization and oppression these students face while maintaining complete ignorance of their needs. Guerrero rethought and restructured his decision when he was originally faced with backlash from the Access community. Now he’s being faced with the same backlash from the Pioneer community, and he has not stepped back to reassess his plan. This is a glaring example of the inequities in PPS.
As members of PPS, we must keep fighting for our fellow students within the district, regardless of their abilities. Students at Pioneer are desperate for their program to stay in the one place they know it can be successful. “The Pioneer program is an absolute necessity for many young students,” proclaimed Pioneer twelfth grader Atticus Wysong-Crane. We must advocate for those students like Crane and his peers to provide equitable opportunities to all students throughout the district.