Misbehavior in the schools
In some ways, the timing of the Newberg School District's effort to solicit feedback from the community ahead of approximately $4 million in budget cuts for 2018-2019 could not have been worse.
That's because it coincided with rising frustration from some parents at the district's inability to address the disruption caused by a growing number of unregulated students in classrooms at some elementary and one middle school building.
Those concerns dominated the conversation at some of the feedback sessions the district set up to better involve the community in the upcoming budget process, especially at three question-and-answer sessions officials held for parents.
And while voicing their distress may have created confusion and clouded the conversation around the budget situation, it also appears that those parents, along with some school staff, have successfully gotten the attention of the district.
"That's one of the pieces we've heard loud and clear through all of our groups, that we've got to get some systems and structures and supports in place to help those students stay on track or keep those students from keeping other students from learning," Superintendent Kym LeBlanc-Esparza said. "Those things just have to be a part of this process, there's no negotiating that."
Prior to the two district-wide sessions, where parents and community members engaged in a "keep-stop-start" activity to provide the district data on what they valued most for their child's educational experience, the district hosted a question-and-answer with parent leaders. Around the same time, building principals were going through the same process at parent group meetings (district teachers and staff had already participated in Q & A sessions with district leadership and done the value exercises themselves).
The concern about behavioral issues – such as individual students being so defiant that classroom activities come to a full stop as teachers address them -- were voiced loud enough that the district hosted two more Q & A sessions that were made open to all parents.
Many parents at those meetings took the opportunity to vent their frustration that the behavioral issues, including unsafe behaviors like kicking and punching fellow students, didn't seem to be getting any better. On top of that, many said they feared the problem would persist or even get worse considering the district was preparing to make such massive budget cuts.
LeBlanc-Esparza said it was understandable that parents expressed their concerns because they hadn't necessarily been given the chance to that address directly with district officials before. But she also pushed back against the perception, perhaps fueled by the frequency and intensity of the discussions at various meetings, that the behavioral issues were chronic and widespread throughout the district.
"It's not happening all year long and it's not all schools, but it feels like it's everywhere when you're in the middle of it for that parent," she said.
Also creating confusion was the conflation of the problematic behavioral issues with the district's recent shift to an inclusion model in regard to its overall approach to special education students.
District officials, however, have been adamant that the special education students that have been moved away from into regular classrooms are not creating the disruptions and negatively impacting their peers.
Director of Special Programs Candace Pelt clarified that inclusion refers to the district's decision to make it a priority to teach students, including special education students, at their neighborhood school, as opposed to hosting students with similar challenges in specialized classrooms or programs in other buildings. She added that not all specialized classrooms and programs for special education students, both in the district or outside of it through the Willamette Education Service District, have been eliminated.
LeBlanc-Esparza said that there has been increase in students who lack the ability to self-regulate, either because they are new to the district or school or that behavioral issues are arising for the first time in older students. At the same time, she and Pelt added that many teachers have not been equipped or trained to deal with such behaviors, which also must be separated into unsafe or violent ones, for which even elementary students can be suspended, and defiant or noncompliant ones, for which they cannot.
LeBlanc-Esparza, Pelt and other district officials asked parents to be patient as the district works to address the problem, both in the short and long term, explaining that much of their response is limited or strictly guided by regulation and law, but even more so because effective solutions simply take time to implement.
Part of that is because when such disruptive behaviors occur, the district has to sufficiently document them, perform an analysis as to why they are happening and then create a plan to address them and support both the student and the school staff around them.
"For our parents, if it happens twice, I know I'd want to say, 'What are you doing about this? This is my kid,'" LeBlanc-Esparza said. "I absolutely get it, but on the other side, in the educational realm, we can't just see it happen twice and suddenly label a kid and put them somewhere else in a different program."
For instance, they said Dundee Elementary has seen a rise in the number of unregulated students the past two years, but praised principal Reed Langdon for working with district staff to provide professional development, not only for teachers, but all staff, on de-escalation, trauma-informed care and collaborative problem solving.
That approach has worked well so far, even drawing interest from other school districts that want to use it as a model, and was also recently implemented at Edwards Elementary.
"Is it perfect? No," LeBlanc-Esparza said. "But is it better than it was? Yes, but it took three days of professional development and restructuring some of their classroom dynamics."
LeBlanc-Esparza said that it will likely provide that training next year at schools like Mabel Rush Elementary and Chehalem Valley Middle School, which have been experiencing similar problems.
Pelt added that the district has made other moves to address the issue, including assigning a behavioral specialist to Chehalem Valley full time. Moving forward, the idea is to create systems and train staff at each building in how to more effectively deal with disruptive students on their own instead of relying upon district-level staff that simply can't respond quickly because they are based elsewhere and maybe stretched too thin.
"What we really needed parents to understand is that if it was easy, we would have done it," LeBlanc-Esparza said. "It's going to take a little bit of time."