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State Rep. Susan McLain gets earful on class sizes and other school issues

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Susan McLain (standing) drew teachers from Pacific University and the Hillsboro, Forest Grove and Banks school districts, as well as regular citizens, when she held a constituent coffee on education issues Saturday, Sept. 17, at BJs Coffee in Forest Grove. Casting a skeptical eye on studies that say otherwise, state Rep. Susan McLain said class size does make a difference in students’ success.

As chairwoman of the Oregon Legislature’s Class Size Task Force, McLain said she saw reports that suggested the key to students’ educational success wasn’t class size but rather their sense of safety, their teacher’s ability to give timely feedback on their work and their overall relationship with their teacher.

But all those factors depend on class size, McLain said last weekend: “I can’t have a relationship with students in a class of 48 that I can have in a class of 25.”

The Forest Grove resident, Democrat and longtime teacher spoke with nearly 30 people who attended a “Constituent Coffee” on educational issues at BJ’s Coffee Sept. 17.

McLain’s seat in the Oregon House, where she represents District 29, is being challenged this year by Republican Juanita Lint, owner of Plum Hill Vineyards, who touted her experience as a small-business owner at a recent Meet-and-Greet in Forest Grove. Lint has said she wants to help legislators understand the kind of silly but arduous regulations small businesses sometimes face and to help solve that problem.

With 42 years of teaching experience behind her, McLain’s forte is education. For the first 25 years, she said, her classes ranged from 25 to 28 students. Then they jumped to 30 to 42 students. When she retired in 2014, McLain’s classes that year routinely held more than 35 students.

“The teacher next door was ready to quit after seven years,” remembers McLain, who said class size was one of many factors discouraging her colleague. Others included increased pressure from standardized tests and more responsibilities and mandates without adequate preparation.

McLain ultimately persuaded her colleague to stay and promised to try to improve teaching conditions through her work in the Legislature.

Bobbi Wolf, a Hillsboro grandmother who volunteers in her grandchildren’s Beaverton classroom said trying to teach 30 six-year-olds in a kindergarten classroom was like herding cats.

Jeff Matsumoto, a second-grade teacher at Harvey Clarke Elementary School who served on the state’s Class Size Task Force with McLain, urged everyone to not just volunteer, but to call their school boards and urge them to lower class sizes instead of relying on “Band-Aids.”

“I’m a Band-Aid — I recognize that,” Wolf said.

Don Jones, whose wife teaches kindergarten at Harvey Clarke, noted the influential STARS (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, which found clear positive effects of smaller class size back in the early 90s, when it was conducted, defining “small” classes as 13 to 17 students per teacher and “regular” classes as 22 to 25 students per teacher — both a far cry from the 30- to 40- or even larger classes many teachers are facing these days.

Tiffany Boggis, a Pacific University professor of occupational therapy, said her students felt overwhelmed when they interned in local schools, racking up huge caseloads.

School caseloads for occupational therapists used to be about 60 in the 1990s but now range from 90 to 120. “An ideal caseload would be closer to 30 to 45 students,” Boggis said after the coffee event.

“Some of our new graduates have taken jobs in the school systems, yet have left for other jobs within a few years because it is not possible to ethically serve the number of children assigned to them,” she said. 

Mark Bailey, head of Pacific’s Education department, said he read a Statesman-Journal story that calculated Oregon would need to spend $3 billion more per year to catch up with school funding in Massachusetts. A $2 billion investment could move Oregon from 39th in per-pupil school funding nationally, where it is now, up to 15th, which is where it used to be in the early 90s, he said.

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