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Teachers' Contract May Have Some Unintended Consequences

(Oregon Public Broadcasting) — Portland Public School officials have hailed the new teachers' contract as one of the best such agreements in decades.

Some changes have been widely reported -- like additional teachers and a longer school year. But there are less obvious changes that could have a big impact.

Foreign language instruction like this Mandarin Chinese class offered at Woodstock Elementary will expand under Portland's plans for next fall.

Principals at schools with immersion programs say it's already a struggle to hire and hold onto qualified bilingual instructors -- without adding more programs.

The new contract should help, according to Superintendent Carole Smith.

"We did some changes and simplified our hiring process that lets us get out and be early, out, and competitive, as we're looking to hire new teachers. And particularly that matters for hard-to-fill positions. For instance, adding some more dual-language immersion programs in the coming year," Smith says.

The new hiring process may seem like an obtuse contract change.

But it's one of several moves that administrators and teachers say students will notice.

When Lewis Elementary principal Tim Lauer addressed parents of incoming kindergarteners recently, he made just one reference to the teachers' contract.

He was talking about physical education.

"Kids have PE once a week currently. We anticipate that could be twice a week, based on the recent settlement, and all that stuff that's been in the news," Lauer said.

Nothing in the contract says "students will get more PE."

The key line that is in the contract is an increase in planning time for elementary teachers.

What does that have to do with PE?

Well, for a classroom teacher to get planning time during the school day, students have to go someplace else.

"Some of that planning time could happen outside the student day, but some of it will happen as part of the student day, which will mean that some students will probably get more access to enrichment classes to make that possible," Smith explains.

By enrichment, Smith means art, music, or the class Tim Lauer wants to offer students at Lewis more often: phys ed.

"It helps give us another PE period a week, which I think is something they need, and would be good for our program, but also it allows us to help structure a schedule that has a certain amount of time for teachers for planning, which they need," Lauer said.

In the weeks before the contract was settled, high schoolers rallied to their teachers' side - as they did, at this demonstration outside Jefferson High.

In the end, high school students could see one of the biggest changes, next year.

State education officials have been investigating the district's block schedule for high school.

Portland parents filed an official complaint, saying the eight-block schedule gives students inadequate time in class.

The state's investigation may conclude any day.

The district has already acknowledged classes often fall short of the 130-hour minimum.

Before the contract was settled, the district was telling principals to plan on an eight-period schedule -- with the caveat that the teachers' contract would dictate "conditions" for the schedule.

After the contract was settled, Superintendent Carole Smith said the high school schedule was a work in progress.

"So, yes, we're not all the way arrived at what the schedules will be for next year, at this moment, but we're looking at publishing a seven-period schedule and an eight-period schedule, that meet all of the criteria," Smith said.

Board member Bobbie Regan says even with the new contract, the eight-block schedule would be difficult to implement. "Technically speaking, we could get to either schedule, given the contract that we just passed," Regan said. "I'm not sure it'll necessarily be as attractive as it was in the past."

The district instituted the block schedule three years ago, partly to absorb teacher layoffs.

Lately, the district has been trying to thread a needle between state minimums for student instruction and workload limits for teachers.

The contract helps in that regard -- by hiring at least 50 more high school teachers, and by extending the school year.

But the contract is just one factor in the high school schedule.

It's likely to be influenced by the upcoming budget process -- and by what the state concludes, in its investigation.


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