Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly weighed in over the weekend on a Portland Public Schools plan that’s been generating opposition for months: oust a program for special education students from its building in favor of a larger program for gifted students.
Since the announcement of the change in November, parents and staff from the special education program, Pioneer, have regularly protested at school board meetings and even shown up at board members’ workplaces to protest. The optics have been awkward for the district from the beginning. Officials botched announcement of the change by accidentally telling families in the gifted program before Pioneer families about the move.
Time hasn’t soothed tensions.
School board members have said the decision is a done deal. Access Academy, which serves more than 350 highly gifted students, is being ejected from the former Rose City Park Elementary building because that facility is needed to reopen as a neighborhood school. So, the 120-plus students now served at Pioneer will be moved to two smaller sites over the summer, they say, reinforcing Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero’s choice.
Board members have indicated that, while the move was spurred by a building shortage, they feel it is also a change needed to improve service for some of the most vulnerable students in the district.
Many Pioneer parents and teachers are skeptical that the change will lead toward anything resembling improvement. Oregon’s largest school district, critics argue, has a poor track record. The fast timeline to split up and relocate the special education students is a setup for failure not success, they say.
Eudaly, whose own child is in special education at a Portland school, wrote a lengthy Facebook post that decried the decision. In response to comments questioning if Pioneer is currently serving these students well she wrote:
“I’m well aware of what Pioneer is and I have issues with it but that’s not relevant to this conversation. It’s not like the school district is offering an improvement.”
Read Eudaly’s entire post below:
“I had a couple brief encounters yesterday that left me feeling very sad about the general lack of understanding and support for students with disabilities. As an accelerated learner who struggled in school and ultimately dropped out, and the parent of a child with multiple disabilities, I understand how our public schools often fail learners who deviate from the ‘norm.’ I empathize with parents desperate to see their children achieve their potential when their educational needs are not being met. (Talented and gifted) and special education students have something in common in this regard (sometimes a student qualifies for both). However, their standing in our district, community, and society are not the same. Their struggle is not the same. Their outcomes are not the same.
Chances are your accelerated learner is white, and/or middle class, and/or does not have a disability. I mention this not to shame or guilt trip but to point out relative advantage. I bet you tell them they can do and be anything they set their mind to and you believe it. There are numerous programs, resources, and opportunities inside and outside of school available to them that many students with disabilities cannot access. In fact, many parents of children with disabilities are too busy fighting to protect their children’s civil rights and get their most basic needs met to even think about extracurriculars (even if they were welcomed and included, which they are often not). And many of us have been denied the basic experience that most families take for granted — getting to choose and remain at a school and be a part of a community.
I am deeply disappointed to see our school district continue to treat students with disabilities and their families like second-class citizens and not full members of the community. Our children belong as much as anyone’s and should not be shuffled around like surplus furniture. We know that changing schools can have detrimental effects for any student. How can we justify repeated moves for our most vulnerable students?
I spent years feeling cheated by my public school experience, where I was literally stuck in a corner and given busy work while other students received instruction. Could I have gone further, faster given a more appropriate education? Absolutely. But you know what? Things worked out for me. I can’t say the same for many of my classmates with disabilities, or the students who followed them over the next 30 years, or most painfully, my own son.
This Pioneer/Access debate reminds me of an encounter I had years ago at Chapman Park (ironically attached to our neighborhood school, which Henry would later be denied access to). I was pushing Henry on the single adapted swing (the only accessible feature) when a mother and her able bodied child expressed their impatience for their turn. I looked at them and said, ‘You’ve got the entire park and playground to explore. This is the only thing my son can enjoy.’ And I turned back around and kept pushing. I’m going to keep pushing for the students who are getting the short end of the stick — students with disabilities, students of color, students from low income households, (English language learner) students — in our shamefully inequitable system. Please stand with me for all students beginning with the ones who are most in need.”
— Bethany Barnes
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