Our Story



The Cottonwood School of Civics and Science is a placed-based, tuition-free K-8 public charter school in Portland, OR. The school began as the Southwest Charter School (SWCS) in 2007. Our place-based school is the inspired result from the work of a group of determined families who wanted to replace a closed neighborhood school in Southwest Portland.


As these families worked to create the school, they became increasingly involved in local government. Inspired by their own active engagement in the civic process, and recognizing that this work made them active citizens in their own backyard, they researched educational models that focused on hyper-local civic engagement. They found the placed-based learning model, and as they say, the rest is history.


The families initially applied for charter status through Portland Public School, but that application was denied, leading them to apply to the Oregon Department of Education. In April 2007, the State Board of Education voted to charter the new school.

Our School’s Name


In the spring of 2017, the school community agreed to change the name of the Southwest Charter School to The Cottonwood School of Civics and Science. They felt the school needed a name that more directly communicated its mission of civic engagement and scientific inquiry, and spoke to the school’s immediate sense of place.


The reference to civics and science summarizes our focus on fieldwork and democratic participation, something that has characterized the school’s work from its inception. The Cottonwood School is also located directly next to Cottonwood Bay on the Willamette River, and holds a special place in the heart of the community—most importantly, its students. Teacher, students and family volunteers venture frequently to this riverside spot to study plants and animals, clean up and take care of the landscape or simply play. Symbolically, cottonwood tree seeds disperse across the neighborhood, just as our students can be found working in all corners of the community.

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