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Frequently Asked Questions about the ACCESS School

 

Access task force, 9/10/2001


 

Contents:

 

1. What is the ACCESS school?

2. Why is it called the "ACCESS School"?

3. Why did the Portland School District propose a new school?

4. What did the task force conclude about the proposed new school?

5. Who would attend the school?

6. Why would families want such a school?

7. How many students could attend the school?

8. How will the students be selected?

9. What will the school teach?

10. Isnít it wrong to rely on biased tests to select students for gifted programs?

11. How would the school benefit the city of Portland?

12. Have other cities tried this and was it successful?

13. I donít have any children in school. Why should I support this proposal?

14. Will this school hurt neighborhood schools?

15. Will this school benefit Portland Public Schools as a whole district?

16. Will attending a special school promote "elitism?"

17. Isnít a school for the gifted undemocratic?

18. Will going to a special school deny children the opportunity to experience diversity?

19. Will going to school with a group of other gifted children leave these students unable to work with "normal" people?

20. I received an ACCESS school survey. Why was my family selected?

21. I received a survey about the school. Does this mean that my child will automatically be eligible to attend?

22. Our family did not receive a survey. Is my child eligible to apply?

23. What did families want in a school, according to your survey results?

24. We come from outside the state. Our child has been identified as a GATE or TAG student in another state. Would our child be eligible to apply?

25. We have home-schooled our child. May we apply?

26. Our child has attended private school. May we apply?

27. Our child attends a public school outside the Portland School District. May we apply?

28. How should I apply?

29. Will there be a cost for applying or for attending this school?

30. How can I help this school now or in the future?

 


 

1. Q: What is the ACCESS School?

A: The ACCESS school is a proposed special focus public school for Portland that would serve a limited number of unusually gifted students who need a very fast-paced, very accelerated curriculum. It is not a charter school or private school. It would operate in a school district building with staffing levels and funding comparable to those in other PPS schools.

2. Q: Why is it called the "ACCESS School"?

 

A: The ""working" name of the school is an acronym of the schoolís goals:

 

Accelerated curriculum

Cultivation and development of skills, abilities and creativity

Character and social development

Exploration and personal discovery

Self-directed, self-paced challenges toward excellence,

Service to the community and society with tolerance and wisdom.

 

Once the school has opened, the students will choose a new name for the school.

 

3. Q: Why did the Portland School District suggest a new school?

A: The Oregon TAG mandate requires every school district to identify Talented and Gifted Students, who are defined as students in the top 3% of the state. Nationally standardized tests in mathematics, reading or aptitude must be used for identification. Districts must also identify students who have the potential to perform in the top 3%.

Once they are identified, the law requires every district to assess TAG studentsí instructional needs and provide appropriate instruction at each studentís advanced level and increased rate of learning.

This law was based on solid research. Nearly a century of research has shown that gifted students, and especially very gifted students, need these special services to achieve their potential. Without special services they are at serious risk both academically and emotionally.

The PPS mission states that the district "will support ALL students in achieving their very highest educational and personal potential." Portland test scores show that our very high achieving students on average are not making the same achievement gains as average students--in other words, far from achieving their "very highest potential" they are actually learning less than their classmates. Portland is not unusual in this regard: many other school districts across the country have the same problem. However, studies have found that gifted students in special programs often perform significantly better than similar students who are served within their classrooms or not served at all.

In 1997, Portland parents filed a complaint with the State Department of Education claiming the district was violating the TAG mandate. The State investigated and found the district out of compliance with the law. The state also scheduled a follow-up investigation to determine whether the district had come into compliance with the law. This investigation, carried out in the school year 2000-2001 again found that the district was not in compliance.

The District has conducted research into the "best practices" nationwide for meeting the instructional needs of gifted students. "Self-contained programs" either as separate schools or as schools within a school have proved to be highly successful in meeting these needs. A report commissioned by the District strongly recommended the establishment of such a program. The Superintendent established a task force to consider this recommendation.

 

4. Q: What did the task force conclude about the proposed new school?

A: The task force has concluded that a self-contained program is the most effective way to serve the minority of TAG students who are unusually gifted and need very advanced instruction, specifically students in the top one percent of the district.   These students are now isolated. No single school is likely to have enough students at a single level to group them for instruction. For example, even if a very large elementary school of 600 students has an unusually high incidence of very gifted students, it is still likely to have no more than 10--and they would be spread out over six grade levels. To meet these studentsí instructional needs as required by law either an individual teacher would have to separately design curriculum and instruction for each student or the student would have to be "skipped" several grade levels.

"Skipping" several years, known as "radical acceleration" has serious disadvantages.  Many schools that serve children of the same age do not have any staff members who are certified to teach accelerated students at an appropriate level--for example an elementary school student might be ready for algebra. As a result, radical acceleration often means children must leave their local school and attend a school for older children.

Although research has found that highly gifted students benefit significantly from radical acceleration, most parents are uncomfortable with the idea of sending an eight-year-old child to middle school, or an eleven-year-old to high school. Just placing these children in an advanced class often does not satisfy the law that also requires they be taught at their own pace. Furthermore, the "radical acceleration" (multiple-year skips) needed to meet these studentsí academic needs raises developmental, social, and emotional issues. A student who can read at an advanced level does not necessarily have the coordination to write equally well, nor the attention span needed to complete homework assignments intended for much older children.

The task force concluded that it was more cost-effective for the district as well as better for the students themselves, to offer parents the choice of another program for these unusual students. We believe that parents are most likely to seek this option when their students are not happy or successful in their current schools.

 

5. Q: Who would attend the school?

A: The school is intended for students in the top one percent of the district in math, reading, or general intellectual ability. Students who will benefit from a fast-paced, complex, and very accelerated curriculum, and who need to be in a school offering such a curriculum will attend. Access will serve students who have met or exceeded all or most benchmarks and standards.  Special consideration may be given to students who have demonstrated at-risk behaviors such as substantial underachievement or extreme asynchrony between aptitude and age.  

 

6. Q: Why would the families of these students want such a school?

A: Parents of gifted students seek separate programs for many reasons, but the majority do so because their children are not learning in their existing classrooms. This is supported by Portland Public Schools data which show that very high achieving students are not making even average achievement gains.

Many national and international studies support separate programs for gifted students. Several studies have found that highly gifted students in regular classrooms often have few or no friends and are at risk for serious depression. In many schools highly gifted students find they have no age mates to share their interests. Studies funded by the U.S. Department of Education have found that very few regular classroom teachers modify their instruction appropriately for gifted students. Expecting some advanced students to serve as "tutors" or "role models" for their classmates is neither fair nor effective. Other studies have found that gifted students waste much or all of their time in school and their achievement soars when they attend separate accelerated classes or programs.

 

7. Q: How many students could attend the school?

A: The task force recommended that a program be planned for up to 500 students (one percent of the districtís population, or ten percent of the TAG population) in two "schools". One "school" would include students ranging in age from first grade to middle school; the second would serve students from middle school through high school graduation.

The School Board resolution provided for a pilot program accepting students in four classrooms in the first year and covering grades 1 through 6.  The exact enrollment will be determined by the district staff-student ratio for the opening year, but we anticipate it will be approximately 120 students.   The school will grow by thirty students (one class) every  year.  We anticipate that the High School students will be served as a program within a current PPS High School. 

 

8. Q: How will the students be selected?

A: Students will be selected by an Admissions Committee. Test scores will not be the sole criterion for admission although applicants are expected to have test scores in the 99th. percentile in either: general intellectual ability, mathematics, or reading. The Committee will consider other evidence of giftedness that demonstrates the applicantsí potential to perform at this level; including but not limited to: early reading, teacher observations, advanced mathematical skills, sophisticated work, depth of thought, or unusual creativity.  

In the first year, the admissions committee will probably be members of the PPS Talented and Gifted office, the host school's principal, and a staff member.  In future years, the school's principal and staff will constitute the Admissions Committee.  The committee will take into account both the abilities and the needs fo the applicant.  The admissions process will comply with all federal and state statutes and regulations. 

 

9. What will the school teach?

A: The School will meet all the "scope and sequence" curriculum rules of the Oregon Department of Education and the Portland Public Schools but at an accelerated pace and with advanced materials.  For example, the school will still offer Social Studies covering the topics included in the Social Studies standards but might use materials that require more advanced reading skills than are normal for students at that grade level.  

 

10 Q: Isnít it wrong to rely on biased tests to select students for gifted programs?

A: Of course! That is one reason we decided to take advantage of the procedures already being used in Portland to identify students for the TAG program. The TAG department has developed expertise in choosing among a range of available tests to find ones that are most likely to be appropriate for a particular student. That is also why we included three different areas of strength that we are considering (mathematics, reading and general ability) and specified that our admissions committee must include a wide range of information about each student before making its decision. These practices are all recommended in the research literature.

In addition, we intend to make a major outreach effort, to make sure that students donít miss the opportunity to apply to the program because they havenít heard of it.

We all support public school education, and believe strongly that social barriers, such as income, race, language, and gender must not prevent students from achieving their very highest educational and personal potential. To us, providing appropriate instruction at the rate and level a student needs is an essential part of educational equity.

 

11. Q: How would the school benefit the city of Portland?

A: Portland no longer enjoys a "captive population" of students.  Families have many other options in the metropolitan area: private and parochial schools, home schooling, distance learning, and school districts in other parts of the metropolitan area. Other nearby districts (including those in Clark County, Washington) are offering a very successful range of special schools, advanced classes, and gifted programs. Portland must compete with these other districts for both students and teachers if we are to keep families in the city.

Portland is losing families at an alarming rate, and even among the families who remain, more and more are choosing not to send their students to public school. In some parts of the city at least 40% of the students are choosing not to attend public school.  As Portland now has more school space than students, the continued loss of students imposes additional overhead costs on the district.

Oregon is investing a large amount of money in new engineering and biomedical sciences programs at the college and university level. We need students who are academically prepared to succeed in those programs.  

A gifted school is an important part of the "infrastructure" that supports high quality teacher training, curriculum, teaching, and learning.

 

12. Q: Have other cities tried this and was it successful?

A: Programs for especially gifted students exist in many cities, though the selection criteria and grade levels offered vary from school to school. For example, there are successful public school programs for gifted students in Tucson, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; Sarasota, Florida; St. Louis, Missouri; Alexandria, Virginia; and Vancouver, Washington, to name just a few. California has a number of such programs. Further information about comparable programs is available in the ACCESS Task Forceís "documentation notebook." A copy is available in the TAG department office in the PPS Blanchard Administration Building, 501 N. Dixon St.

The St. Louis program, which is for exceptionally gifted students, has been so successful that a second program is planned for Kansas City.

The director of the very successful Accelerated Progress Program (APP) school in Seattle, which is similar to the program we are proposing for Portland, told us that the school helped Seattle by keeping many families in the central city who would otherwise have moved to the suburbs. In addition, the school has helped foster increased academic rigor in many of the other schools in the district.

Chicago did a study in 1995 and found that it was losing a large number of students at the end of their eighth-grade year; those who left were half a year ahead of those who remained. This led the city to establish "college prep" high schools specifically to keep families in the city and the school district. Since 1995, when the new program was created, the percentage of students who leave for private or parochial schools has dropped significantly. Unlike Chicago, however, which is spending well over a hundred million dollars on its program, ($45 million went to just one high school) we expect the ACCESS program to run on essentially the same budget as any other district school.

 

13. Q: I donít have any children in school. Why should I support this proposal?

A: Healthy schools keep families in our city. Right now, Portland is suffering from a rapid loss of families to suburban districts. Healthy schools are the foundation of successful neighborhoods. Healthy schools are essential for employers seeking to attract a skilled workforce. Most families of very gifted students place a very high priority on appropriate education for their children and will not relocate to districts offering no opportunities for them. Well-educated students will become well-educated citizens who pay taxes and have training, skills, and services to offer their communities.

 

14. Q: Will this school hurt neighborhood schools?

A: The vast majority of families prefer to sent their children to neighborhood schools.  It is easier, less expensive and enables the child to grow up with friends nearby. However, many gifted students are not succeeding in neighborhood schools. Although our first priority is the needs of these individual students, this proposal will benefit, not hurt, neighborhood schools.

Large studies have found that grouping gifted students together does not harm the other students in any way.

Unlike some private schools, the ACCESS school will not be selecting the students who are least expensive to serve, leaving the more difficult students for public schools. On the contrary, the ACCESS school will serve special needs students who are difficult and expensive for their neighborhood schools to serve. It is very time-consuming and burdensome for regular classroom teachers to write an appropriate curriculum for a single student, and many of our teachers are not trained for this task. In addition, it will not be draining financial resources away from other students since it will be funded on the same basis as other schools.

The ACCESS program will simply be too small, and its students too unusual, for any single school to lose many of its students to the program. The TAG students remaining in neighborhood schools will not be losing their "peers" to the ACCESS program. Ninety percent of TAG students will NOT be in the ACCESS school, even after it reaches its final size.

Many neighborhood schools will still have to improve the services they provide to these remaining students to satisfy the law. The ACCESS program can eventually become a source for resources, teacher training and curriculum ideas for these neighborhood schools as well.

 

15. Q: Will this school benefit Portland Public Schools as a whole district?

A: Most states allocate several hundred dollars a year for every gifted student; Oregon has eliminated its grants in aid for gifted students.  We desperately need information, training, curriculum and technical advice in this state, and this is a very cost-effective way to develop some of those resources. The existence of the school may also help to attract some teachers to our local teacher training programs which would help strengthen those programs and possibly add more good candidates to our local hiring pool.

Oregon schools of education do not offer any training for teachers on how to adapt curriculum to meet the needs of highly gifted students, even though such adaptations are required by state law. Untrained teachers who make a conscientious effort to comply with this law find that researching and providing a separate curriculum for a single student takes a disproportionate amount of time and energy--time and energy that is diverted from the other students in the same classroom.

When highly gifted students are scattered one by one across the entire district it costs thirty times as much for the district to provide staff development for their teachers as it does when thirty such students are grouped in a single classroom--these are resources that could be used by the district for other goals including meeting the needs of struggling students, or providing services to other TAG students.

 

16. Q: Will attending a special school promote "elitism?"

A: This school will not serve only wealthy students. We have gifted children in every part of the city. Most of them are middle class or low income students.

Dr. John Geake, an senior scholar in the Department of Learning and Educational Development at the University of Melbourne in Australia and an expert on brain research recently testified to a committee of the Australian Senate that:

"I vigorously oppose those who argue that working class or rural schools do not contain any gifted children. To the contrary, the multiple genetic basis of intelligence explains why ... intelligence is distributed within any population."

Poor families of gifted children are more dependent on the school system for services than are rich families. To fail to provide appropriate instruction to all children creates a special hardship for poor students who have nowhere else to turn.

Nor will this program turn students into "elitists" or "snobs." Students in an accelerated school, like children everywhere, measure themselves against the other children around them. They donít learn to see themselves as "better" or "smarter." They are more likely to see themselves as "normal" in a program where they resemble the other children than in a school where they are clearly many years ahead of their classmates. As the "Marland report" of the U.S. Department of Education found,

"The relatively few gifted students who have had the advantage of special programs have shown remarkable improvements in self-understanding and in ability to relate well to others, as well as in improved academic and creative performance. The programs have not produced arrogant, selfish snobs; special programs have extended a sense of reality, wholesome humility, self-respect, and respect for others."

 

17. Q: Isnít a school for the gifted undemocratic?

A: These are students with very specific special academic needs. We do not complain that other programs for special needs students such as Title 1, English as a Second Language, or Special Education programs are "undemocratic" although they serve specific groups of students. If it is not undemocratic to provide a signing class for hearing-impaired students, or a living skills class for severely learning disabled students, it is not undemocratic to provide an accelerated math program for highly gifted students. A true democracy respects a diversity of needs and interests and treats every student as a unique individual with individualized needs. It does not seek to make every student identical.

 

18. Q: Will going to a special school deny children the opportunity to experience diversity?

A: No. It will give them a much greater opportunity to experience diversity. Many of Portlandís neighborhoods are ethnically and economically homogeneous. Students in many neighborhood schools do not find much diversity there. A citywide school contains a much greater diversity of students than a single neighborhood. In fact, the original idea behind urban "magnet" schools was to help break down geographic barriers that led to social barriers.

 

19. Q: Will going to school with a group of other gifted children leave these students unable to work with "normal" people?

A: No. When children are deeply depressed they are not in a good position to learn social skills. Nor do children gain social skills when they are only able to spend time with others who think very differently from them.

To take a highly gifted child and force him or her to grow up solely in the company of normal children of the same age is the same as assigning a normal child to grow up only among severely learning disabled children--without any contact with other normal children.  That "normal" child would not develop normally. The skills a normal child would otherwise develop, including speech fluency, would be less developed through lack of practice. Similarly, a normal middle school student would not grow up normally if he or she was mistakenly assigned to a first or second grade classroom and forced to remain with these much younger classmates for ten more years.

Research by nationally respected scholars and psychologists such as Miraca Gross and Linda Silverman has found that placing highly gifted children in "cooperative" groups with normal children whose vocabularies and conceptual skills are several years behind theirs fuels misunderstandings, frustration and resentment, not compassion and understanding. It often "backfires" by compelling gifted children to conceal their gifts or even "unlearn" what they already know. (It also reduces learning by other students.) Social "feedback" is much more effective when it comes from peers. Highly gifted young students are more likely to develop true friendships and social skills when grouped with other highly gifted students. Adults who have a secure identity because their childhood needs were met are much more able to reach out to others than adults who grew up trying to bury important aspects of their identities.

Opportunities for very gifted children to interact with other children should increase as they grow older, and are better able to see the world through othersí eyes. We expect the middle school/high school students will share activities and classes with other "typical" students close to their own age.

In addition, Portland is fortunate to have a wealth of community youth organizations beyond school. Any student can meet neighbors and make friends in after-school sports programs, service organizations, church groups, camps, and recreation programs. Here they can share their non-academic interests in places where academic skills are less important than they are in schools.

 

20. Q: We received an ACCESS school survey. Why were we selected?

A: The surveys were sent to every family with a child who had ever scored in the 99th. percentile on a test used by the District for TAG identification. We wanted information about what respondents thought should be included in the schoolís program from families and students who resembled as closely as possible those who would actually be attending the school. A random sampling of PPS families, for example, probably would not have emphasized so strongly the need for more advanced classes.

 

21. Q: We received a survey about the school. Does this mean that my child will automatically be eligible to attend?

A: No. Although the committee will be looking for strong evidence (including test scores) that a student can achieve at the 99th. percentile level, all applications will be individually reviewed by the admissions committee which will look at a much larger range of information about each student than any single test.

The committee will make its decisions according to the need of the student for the program and the likelihood that the student will benefit from a very fast-paced, very accelerated curriculum.

 

22. Q: We did not receive a survey. Is my child still eligible to apply?

A: Yes, if he or she meets the Oregon State criteria for participation in the TAG program. We have found that some families that should have received a survey did not. The admissions committee will consider each application on its own merits.

 

23. Q: What did families want in a school, according to your survey results?

A: Parents and students clearly told us they want advanced and accelerated instruction. Ninety-seven percent of the parents returning surveys said that they wanted an accelerated curriculum (instruction at a higher grade level than usual) for their children.

 

24. Q: We come from outside the state. Our child has been identified as a GATE or TAG student in another state. Would our child be eligible to apply?

A: Applicants need not be previously identified as PPS TAG students but they must have evidence that they meet the minimum requirements for TAG identification under Oregon State Law. Some states have much lower requirements for TAG/GATE programs than Oregon does. If you can provide evidence that your student has recently scored in the top three percent on a nationally-standardized test of math, reading, or aptitude, then you may apply. However, the admissions committee will be looking for clear evidence that your student can achieve at the 99th. percentile level.

 

25. Q: We have home-schooled our child. May we apply?

A: Again, the committee will be looking for clear evidence that your child can achieve at the 99th. percentile level. Contact the TAG office for assistance in obtaining the evidence you will need.

 

26. Q: Our child has attended private school. May we apply?

A: Your child must meet the minimum requirements for TAG identification under Oregon State Law. The committee will be looking for clear evidence that your child can achieve at the 99th. percentile level

 

27. Q: Our child attends a public school outside the Portland School District. May we apply?

A. You may apply if your child meets the minimum requirements for TAG identification under Oregon State Law. The admissions committee will be looking for clear evidence that your child can achieve at the 99th. percentile level. If your child is admitted, either your home school district must agree to reimburse Portland for the "seat" it is providing for your child or you must pay the tuition. Because these special needs students are very expensive for small school districts to serve, we anticipate that many districts will find it is more cost-effective for them to reimburse Portland than to serve them in their home schools.

 

28. Q: How should I apply?

A: Applications will be handled through the same process that Portland currently uses for all its special focus and magnet programs and will observe the same deadlines.  

Out-of-District students new to Portland Schools may request the "Application for Student Transfer: Nonresident student" form at the Student Transfer Office.  Students may apply during the priority application period, but their admission will be conditional until April 1.  Beginning April 1, these students will be accepted only if there is room for additional students and there are no Portland District students on the waiting list.  Final approval for transfer will be held until funding arrangements are made through the Enrollment and Transfer Center.  If approval for an interdistrict agreement or a tuition agreement is not in place by June 15, these students will lose their spot.  They may be considered again after July 1.

Out-of-District students currently enrolled in Portland Schools through the interdistrict agreement or tuition agreement will have the same standing as students living within the Portland District in terms of priority for transfers.  

Applications will  be available from the PPS TAG office. 

 

29. Q: Will there be a cost to applying or attending this school?

A: This will be a public school in the Portland school district. There is no application fee. Families resident in the Portland school district would not pay anything to attend the school. Families outside the district would have to obtain permission from their own school district to release the tuition for the cost of a "seat" in a Portland school, or reimburse the school district themselves for the tuition.

 

30. Q: How can I help this school, now or in the future?

A: If you wish to be involved in any aspect of the ACCESS school, contact the chair of the ACCESS task force, Margaret DeLacy, mdelacy@pacifier.com , or call the TAG administrator, Amy Welch, at (503)-916-3358. You can also call Amy Welch and ask that your name be placed on the ACCESS e-mail list. 

 


 

Copyright September 10, 2001, Margaret DeLacy and the ACCESS School Task Force.

All rights reserved.  Permission is granted for nonprofit use, provided that appropriate credit is given.

 

Last modified on: Sunday, September 23, 2007  

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