Portland’s Schools Take On Tough Issues and Bold Ideas

From absentee kindergartners to meditation classes, local education is transforming.

Edited by Ramona DeNies By Alex Madison, Katelyn Best, Rachel Grozanick, Zach Dundas, and Emma Mannheimer January 15, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

0216 special needs 01 gk8qys

We set out to study up on ten timely topics impacting education in Portland—read on to share the knowledge.

Meeting Special Needs

Education isn’t one-size-fits-all, a precept that particularly applies to Portland’s many special-needs students. Options for these students, once vanishingly limited, are on the rise. See three examples below. 


This Sherwood K–12 private school currently serves 60 students with autism spectrum disorder. This past fall, Victory moved to a new, custom-built facility featuring life-skills classrooms, special lighting, and “break out” rooms attached to every classroom.


On campus at Holladay Elementary, Youngson Middle School, and Pioneer High School, Portland Public Schools offers programming for students with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. A “collaborative problem solving” approach means that educators, parents, and students work together to solve behavior issues, aiming to help students return to a regular classroom.


At Park—a 10-year-old, nonprofit private school in Lake Oswego—children with language learning differences, specifically dyslexia, learn through multisensory teaching techniques in a small group setting, each oriented to students’ processing styles.

Extracurricular Chic

Four achingly hip after-school programs for your precious charges

The Circuit Child

Drop off a child, bring home a mini monkey. The Circuit Gym’s six-week courses teach bouldering fundamentals and team building with levels from lemur to ninja master.

The Bow Hunter

Trackers Earth offers your off-the-grid kid mad winter skills like blacksmithing and archery; in summer, your tot builds shelters and trains for the zombie apocalypse.

The Mad Scientist

Space living and astronaut gear! The Future Space Explorers program—a partnership of NASA and the Mad Science Group—makes a weekly landing at more than 100 area elementary schools. Roger that.

The Aerial Artist

At five elementaries, kids clown with confidence after Circus Cascadia’s lessons in juggling, stilt-walking, and diabolo spinning.

Roll Call

According to a national nonprofit, 24 percent of Oregon’s fourth and eighth graders miss more than 10 percent of total instruction time. At Southeast Portland’s Lynch Wood Elementary, part of Centennial School District, nearly 30 percent of students were chronically absent in 2012–2013. So in 2014, the school began weaving a safety net focusing on the earliest offenders, kindergartners.

  • When a student’s attendance drops below 90 percent, the teacher makes a call home. “At that point, it’s just about establishing a positive relationship,” says Principal Andrea Sande.
  • If absenteeism persists, staff sits down with the child to identify problems. What’s their evening routine? Do they have an alarm? Is an adult home in the morning?
  • Finally, the family receives a home visit from a member of the school’s five-person intervention team—which includes school staff, a state Department of Human Services worker, and Centennial’s full-time attendance caseworker.

The results? A 7 percent reduction in truancy. Lynch Wood’s approach—which is part of a county-wide pilot project spearheaded by the nonprofit All Hands Raised\—could one day be replicated more broadly. For now, Sande says, “the focus is on identifying which strategies are getting results.”

The Best Money Can Buy

To judge by at least one national ranking, our state’s best school is Oregon Episcopal, a PK–12 private school nestled on 59 groomed acres in Raleigh Hills. The price tag suits: nearly $30K annually for upper-grade day students; upwards of $55K if boarding. What do Aardvarks (the school’s mascot) get for the equivalent of a year’s salary?

  • 7:1 Student-to-teacher ratio
  • 15,000 Volumes within in-house library
  • Rock-climbing walls
  • 21 Musical instruments with one-on-one lessons
  • 15 On-site wetland acres
  • Tennis courts
  • 684 Average SAT math score
  • 99 Percent of graduating seniors who enroll directly in college
  • Modernist bell tower

The K–8 Shuffle

It wasn’t that long ago—2006, in fact—that Portland Public Schools reconfigured many elementary and middle schools into K–8 programs. And yet! Last October the district proposed splitting as many as 22 K–8s back into elementary and middle schools. (PPS’s elected board is expected to vote on the grade configurations this month.) Some love the old-time intimacy and continuity of K–8s. But proponents of the changes say that disassembling them will address overcrowding and other issues; a recent district report showed that students at traditional middle schools graduate from high school at higher rates.

0216 ticket nla7fn

Open House (Closed Book)

When the Emerson School holds its February open house, the North Park Blocks charter packs the nearby First Unitarian Church. Yet Emerson accepts at most 16 kindergartners by lottery. The crunch is common at popular charters. At North Portland’s Trillium, 263 families were on last fall’s waiting list. For Opal School’s lottery, “winners” often must decide within 48 hours. Opal administrator Karen Belsey advises parents: “Recognize that you’re entering a public lottery process. Don’t get committed to just one school.”

Day in the Life at Grant High

Andrea Alvarado doesn’t officially graduate until June, but in some ways the 18-year-old has already moved on from Grant High School. The senior’s “A-B” schedule means that she has four classes on some days, and on the others just one. (So, lots of free time to read books like Darkness Becomes Her, by fantasy author Kelly Keaton.) Next fall, Andrea hopes to start classes at Portland Community College; till then, it’s an easy ride to the last day of class. 

  • 6 a.m. Rise and shine
  • 7:10 a.m. Andrea and her sister Alejandra, a junior, catch a ride to school with Mom or Dad.
  • 7:50 a.m. Arrive at school early; hang out with friends in Spanish class; catch up on late homework
  • 8:15 a.m. Spanish class (Andrea, a proficient speaker, is a teaching assistant.)
  • 9:53 a.m. Dance class
  • 11:26 a.m. Lunch
  • 12:04 p.m. Modern World History class (Andrea is also a teaching assistant.)
  • 1:42 p.m. African American Literature class (her favorite)
  • 3:15 p.m. Andrea catches the 70 and 75 bus lines with her sister back home.
  • 4:30 p.m. Home—family dinner, let the dogs out
  • 6 p.m. Homework, usually reading. Andrea also helps her sister.
  • 9 p.m. Catch a break—Andrea’s favorite television show is Fox’s Scream Queens.
  • 11 p.m. ¡Hasta mañana!

Charter School 101

From French-immersion Le Monde to Self Enhancement Inc, Portland’s charter schools are a class apart: funded by the state but autonomous in hiring, budget, and curriculum.

History: Authorized by Senate Bill 100 in 1999, Lourdes School—Oregon’s first public charter—opens in Scio.

Geography: The state now has 126 charter schools. Eight—like the Opal School and Trillium—are sponsored by the Portland Public Schools district.

Social Studies: PPS can be choosy: 47 charter hopefuls have applied to date.

Math: Out of PPS’s 49,075 students, 1,590 are enrolled in charters.

Language Arts: Says Kristen Miles, PPS charter schools program director: “Charters generally come from passionate innovators looking for something not already offered.”

0216 quiet minds ezve1w

Quiet Minds

Each morning at Marysville School, class starts with a “brain break.” These 10 minutes of restful stillness create a “beautiful synergy,” says Principal Lana Penley—mindfulness the Foster-Powell neighborhood K–8 school sought following a devastating 2009 fire. The neuroscience-based regimen went schoolwide three years ago, and includes bimonthly lessons in compassion, conflict resolution, and self-regulatory behaviors. “I have seen an incredible shift in the sense of schooling,” says Penley. “It has become a more a joyful place.”


Right now, a high school senior (or his or her parent) is struggling with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA). The pain is worth it. Last year, more than 8 million students received federal Pell grants, which top out at $5,775. Yet nationally, just over half of graduating high school seniors ever file a FAFSA. That rate is slightly better (64 percent) in Oregon, perhaps because of a statewide effort called FAFSA Plus. “Students are already intimidated about college,” says José Esparza, a scholarship coordinator for Portland Community College, a FAFSA Plus partner along with All Hands Raised and other entities. “They see this complicated application and say, ‘Maybe this isn’t worth it.’” Since 2012, Esparza has gathered required documentation and helped students fill out the form at several area high schools. At Jefferson High, FAFSA completion jumped 11 percent in one year. “A mom will start crying and thanking me,” says Esparza. “You see a huge weight lifted off their shoulders.”

Filed under
Show Comments