Image: Sara Wong

After 17 years in Oregon education, you notice some patterns.

“I was at too many policy tables where we were not making the decisions we needed to make to improve black students’ success and well-being,” says Kali Thorne Ladd, reflecting on a career that’s spanned positions with Portland Mayor Sam Adams, the Oregon Department of Education, and Multnomah County.

A main focus of these policy discussions was the need to address the “cradle-to-career” continuum, beginning before a child reaches school age. So in 2012, Thorne Ladd joined forces with a few other women—a group that included Zalika Gardner, Kaaren Heikes, and Marsha Williams—to launch the nonprofit KairosPDX. At first, its work revolved around kids under 5 who were eligible for Head Start but weren’t enrolled in its preschool program. “What we found is that there was a lot of children, particularly African American children, that are in what they call family, friends, and neighbor care, or care that is not with a preschool,” Thorne Ladd says of Kairos’s Early Learning Network. 

KairosPDX’s charter school, an elementary that’s part of Portland Public Schools with a lottery-based admission system, was later conceived to fill what Thorne Ladd said was a gap in the continuum between Head Start and existing programming focused on the middle and high school years. The school, currently located in North Portland, enrolls 219 kids—half are African American, with another quarter students of color.

“Our model is different in terms of creating a space of inclusion for children,” Thorne Ladd says. “We’ve done a lot based on the neuroscience of how the brain works.”  She says that while Kairos’s mission concerns African American children in Portland, parts of the model can be replicated in other schools: those serving significant numbers of children of color or schools in rural areas, for example.

“I’m proud that we were able to come together as a community to say black kids matter,” Thorne Ladd says. “I remember one [school board] member saying, ‘I hate charters, but I’ll support Kairos because of what you’re trying.’”

Imani Muhammad, whose son is a second grader at Kairos, says she saw it as her only post-daycare option aside from homeschool. “Portland Public Schools has a history of not reaching black and brown youth. Take Kairos off the table, and I don’t feel like there’s any school that addresses my son’s needs,” she says. “How they show up every day for our kids—it’s just different.”

The 15th Annual Light a Fire Awards

6 p.m., November 21, Oregon Convention Center


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