Over the past few weeks, students at my school, ACCESS Academy, have gotten a crash course in advocacy.
Just in my family alone, both my younger brother and I have spoken at school board meetings; I wrote an email to PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and the school board; my brother sent a letter to the Portland Tribune (which they unfortunately didn’t publish). My mom had a letter featured in the Oregonian and was even interviewed on TV. On Monday, 300 or more of my fellow students and our parents participated in a peaceful rally outside district offices, where several news crews interviewed students, and on Tuesday morning, middle schoolers at ACCESS organized a walkout with media coverage.
The reason? PPS had proposed closing our school, without ever having taken the time to visit ACCESS or gotten to know who it serves and how important it is to its students.
ACCESS Academy serves students throughout the entire district whose academic and social needs cannot be met in their neighborhood schools. We have students taking math classes up to four or five levels above their grade. For example, I will be taking pre-calculus next year in 8th grade, and my brother in 4th grade is now in algebra. My friend was taking high school level Spanish in 5th grade. We can take classes that are at our level that might not be taught at a regular school, and still be with our peers, instead of being the youngest kid in an older class.
At ACCESS, all kids can have friends that are interested in the same things; at their old schools, many students were lonely and didn’t have many friends that they could relate to. Many students had to work alone with worksheets and not participate in what the rest of the class was doing. Many students were bullied by kids and teachers at their home schools for being different. At ACCESS, it’s okay to be different; we’re all different and therefore the same.
At our rally outside the district offices and at the middle-school walk-out, students held up signs saying things like “Don’t separate ACCESS!”, “Don’t split the Atoms!” and “At ACCESS, I feel normal” and “Classrooms not Computers.” We chanted “S.O.S.! Save our school!” and “ACCESS is our home! Our home needs a house!”
And it worked! Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero finally came to visit our school on Monday morning. He met with a lot of students, looked over their math homework and admitted it seemed hard, spoke in perfect Spanish to the Spanish class about why ACCESS matters so much. In science, he asked what we liked about the class. One friend answered “because I can learn at a level higher than my grade. So please keep ACCESS together!” The class burst out laughing at his nerve at just blurting that out, but it was true.
At the board meeting on Monday and again at our school on Tuesday, Superintendent Guerrero actually said that he now realized the importance of ACCESS and that for many students it’s our only option. He agreed that closing ACCESS would be wrong and said he was now committed to keeping us alive and finding us a home. And what was even more amazing to me was that he apologized. He said that he had been wrong to propose closing the school without ever getting to know the school first. I feel like most grown-ups would not have apologized and instead try to make excuses or blame it on someone else. He acknowledged that he was the superintendent and it was his responsibility. He also said that in addition to finding a separate home for ACCESS and expanding it to all students who need it, he wanted to have TAG in all schools, so that even students who don’t need a different setting can still be challenged.
So we are thankful that he heard our voices, and listened to what we were saying and that made him change his mind.
Now for the next step. We still don’t have a building, nor any firm plans to find one. I’m worried that the Superintendent just said what we wanted to hear and that the district still might go back on his word, that they might claim that there aren’t any good buildings, or not try very hard to find one. I want to tell PPS to work hard to find a solution, and not to give up because there’s nothing obvious. Change a building to fit the school, and not the other way round. Don’t displace hundreds of kids for whom this school has changed their lives.
Because we still have that megaphone.
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