My View: It's time to tackle urgent student needs
Coming home from kindergarten, I asked my child what he learned that day.
He told me he learned that the heating system in his classroom would never be fixed, this from his teacher, a 17-year veteran of Portland Public Schools. As the parent of a child enrolled in the PPS system, what I've learned over the past few months is that our school is in crisis.
Crisis — that is the teachers' word; "extreme crisis" to be precise. A few weeks ago, three kindergarten teachers wrote to the PPS School Board to explain that the classrooms, with 27 to 28 kids each, are "desperately overcrowded, under-resourced and not a safe or healthy place."
There is no shortage of research telling us how important early childhood education is. One study estimated the economic impact of kindergarten alone as worth $300,000 in lifetime earnings to the class. Still, class sizes across the board continue to grow without a commensurate increase in teachers or aides, resulting in underserved students who are denied the individual attention so crucial to their development.
This disparity is especially felt regarding children with significant behavioral issues, many of whom come from backgrounds of poverty and trauma. (Approximately 37% of the kids in our school are receiving free or reduced lunch, and we are nearly a Title I school.)
How can teachers impart the basics of foundational subjects and provide emotional support if their primary concern, due to circumstances out of their control, becomes crowd control?
The demands on our educators are outpacing our investments, and the solution isn't to expect them to do more with less. Our teachers' unions have fought mightily to reduce class sizes — when they went to the bargaining table with PPS they worked to place incentives in the contract to reduce class sizes.
Unfortunately, PPS would rather pay individual teachers a little more for crossing over the contractual student-to-teacher ratio than provide additional staff.
When our Legislature returns in February, it needs to make class size a mandatory bargaining subject. Further, we need to recognize that the raw number of kids is only one measure — our measures also need to capture the magnitude of need of our students.
We have kids who need individual education plans, kids who need TAG, kids who need food and housing.
PPS should partner with the city, county and state to leverage all of the resources in our community. And we must work with teachers to develop strategies that help students thrive; expecting instructors to execute ever-changing mandates without the necessary support is simply untenable.
In the meantime, we are told: Just wait, the Student Success Act money is coming. But we can't wait. And after decades of disinvestment in schools, we already know that far more will be needed to adequately address the issues we currently face.
When we begin questioning how to maintain the health and safety of students, teachers and school staff, the answers will provide a roadmap for developing healthier communities overall. We owe it to our children, their educators and ourselves to engage in this process. Our kids and our communities can't wait.
Christina Stephenson lives in Northwest Portland and is a candidate for Oregon House District 33.
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