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Coalition watches clock on classes

Complaint revives a fight for high schools' full day compliance


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - High school students districtwide, including here at Cleveland High School, are used to spending much of their time at study hall. The full school day debate is back.

A parents’ group filed a complaint Oct. 30 with the Oregon Department of Education alleging Portland Public Schools’ failure to meet minimum state requirements for high school instructional hours and class hours.

The Portland Parents’ Coalition, which formed last spring, alleges that PPS is violating state law by not meeting the state-mandated minimum 990 instructional hours per year and 130 class hours per year for high school students.

PPS spokesman Robb Cowie disputes the claim. “We are in compliance with the 990 (hours) requirements,” he says. Schools are required to submit reports every year, and “all PPS high schools are offering students more than 1,000 hours of instructional time this year,” he says.

As for the instructional hours, Cowie points to the teachers’ union, with whom the district is engaged in state mediation on contract negotiations.

PPS and the Portland Association of Teachers held what were to be their final mediation sessions on Monday and Tuesday.

“We have contract language that sets the start time and end time for our schools, contract language that limits the number of instructional days and sets the standard workday for teachers that’s 30 minutes less than surrounding districts,” Cowie says. “It’s a priority for us to increase that instructional time.”

The district has taken actions to remedy the situation, he says. The board added more teachers to the high schools through the adopted budget this fall, and recently added more staff to schools districtwide when another $16 million was found in the budget.

The board’s priorities for the PAT, he says, are providing three additional days for students and setting earlier and longer school days. “There’s a variety of ways in which we’re working to increase instructional time for students,” Cowie says.

PAT President Gwen Sullivan told the Tribune Wednesday that the teachers' contract is not to blame.

She said that in 2011, when the district imposed the eight-period schedule, the union (along with parents) warned PPS that students would get 66 hours less direct instruction per class.

"They didn’t listen, and imposed the schedule anyway," Sullivan says. "At the time, we alerted them to the many issues regarding this block schedule. Again, they didn’t listen and kept defending their actions."

After the coalition's Oct. 30 complaint, Sullivan says, union leaders inquired about the issue at the bargaining table.

"(District officials) wouldn’t tell us how this could impact the high school day and schedule," she says. "They told us they were meeting the requirements but would not tell us how or why. Teachers want to ensure students are getting the best possible education; we are frustrated the district does not work with us to ensure this happens."

Lifting the cap

According to the parents’ coalition, just 17 percent of PPS high school students had a full day of school in 2012. Even though PPS offered an eight-period schedule, the district “encouraged” students to take a “late arrival,” “early dismissal,” or study hall period, signing up for seven or fewer classes out of a possible eight.

Limiting students to seven classes in an eight-period day is equivalent to shortening the school year by 22 days, according to the coalition, “yet because school doors have remained open, unlike districts where budget cuts have caused furloughs or early school closures, this cut has remained hidden from public view.”

Earlier this year, PPS Superintendent Carole Smith’s initial budget proposed funding for juniors and seniors to take no more than six classes and freshmen and sophomores no more than seven classes.

Outcry from the parents’ coalition prompted Smith in May to lift the cap on classes and increase high school staff for this school year.

Yet, the coalition wrote in its complaint: “When schedules were handed out at August registration, students had a theoretical option to register for eight classes, but implementation was substandard and many district-created obstacles prevented students from accessing a full schedule. Parents reported cases in which students were actively discouraged from registering for a full schedule. As of this date, there are still students across the district unable to fill their schedules due to a lack of viable class choices or space in existing classes. Another hindrance: most students attended August registration without the benefit of parents or students knowing in advance that students had less than a full school day or what classes might be available to fill the school day.”

The PAT this week was urging school board members not to declare an impasse as the mediation sessions wrapped up.

After impasse is declared, bargaining rules allow seven days until each side submits their final offer, then a 30-day cooling-off period at which point the union could decide to strike.

“It forces teachers’ hands,” says Suzanne Cohen, a teacher helping with PAT’s outreach. “We do believe they can settle a contract.”

For the most recent information on the bargaining process, see www.pps.k12.or.us/departments/laborrelations/9042.htm.