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Parents demand changes that give kids more time in class

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Sophomores played cards as they studied one morning last week at the park across from Cleveland High School. It was their free period, and they couldnt use the library because testing was under way. The high school schedules are mired in politics, teacher workload issues and district budget priorities.  Last Thursday morning, a group of Cleveland High School sophomores soaked up the sun at the park across from their school, playing a round of cards and listening to music like it was a lazy mid-summer day.

Another group of students played Dungeons & Dragons in a booth at Burgerville.

Other students went home or to a friend's house, or hung out at Plaid Pantry with friends.

It wasn’t a no-school day.

It was just a typical day for Portland School District high school students, who have for the past two years had one to five "free periods" during their school day per week in the form of early dismissals, late arrivals, free periods and study halls, some of which come right before or after lunch for a double-block of free time.

The schedule has been a headache for administrators, who've addressed the issue differently at each of their buildings.

Some of the study halls are mandatory (attendance is taken), while others are deemed optional because there aren’t enough staff to supervise them.

The free period issue has been the biggest controversy in the PPS budget process so far, leading a parents' coalition to lodge a complaint with district officials (see related Web story).

But what has the impact of the free periods really meant for students? One educator set out to find out just that.

Amanda Jordan, a Lewis & Clark College student who just finished her master’s degree in counseling, worked as a counseling intern at Grant High School this school year.

She needed to complete an “action research project” as part of her program requirements, and became interested in the attendance patterns she saw in students.

“Kids I talked to told me they were missing class in order to hang out with their friends during free periods,” she says.

Jordan saw students getting poor grades in easy subjects because they didn’t bother to show up for class if it was on the same day as a free period.

So she decided to delve into the question: “Does a high selection of free periods (three or more) impact school engagement for juniors and seniors at Grant High School?”

Her semester-long study examined the attendance, behavior, performance and attitudes of Grant’s 1,548 students, 57 percent of whom were taking what’s considered a full course load of seven classes.

Grant’s free periods are 75 or 90 minutes, Tuesday through Friday.

What Jordan found wasn’t all that surprising. Upperclassmen with three or more free periods had more absences than those with fewer than three free periods. Juniors with three or more free periods saw a steeper decline in their grade-point average than those with no free periods.

Jordan has a series of data charts, which she shared last week with Grant administrators, Grant’s PTA President Monique McClean, and School Board member Pam Knowles. Jordan cites research that the impact of school engagement is a widely recognized problem among U.S. educators, one that's associated with consequences such as early dropout, substance abuse and other risk factors.

“There’s a strong correlation” between the students’ decline and the free periods, Jordan says. “I can’t say causation, but there are strong indicators.”

Underfunded solutions

The PPS high school schedule is mired in politics. Simplistically, if students are allowed to take eight periods, that greatly increases the workload issue for teachers.

Marty Pavlik, the Uniserv consultant on the teachers' bargaining team, says offering students eight periods isn't a bad idea, but the district doesn't have the resources for it now.

"There are a lot of priorities, and we're not sure this priority is something we can afford to do now, versus when we secure more funding," Pavlik says. "I can see why many kids would want to take eight classes, I just don't think it's good for all kids."

Pavlik, who taught high school for 13 years, says the arbitrator in their last case directed PPS to come up with accurate data on student class loads from 2010. It was due two weeks ago and he hasn't seen it yet, he says.

At this point, Pavlik says he doesn't know enough about Smith's latest proposal, and is still awaiting the data on class loads. He does appreciate Smith's proposal to reallocate money from administration to go directly to the classroom.

To parents who are concerned about their students' free periods, he says the only solution is finding a better way to fund education.

"We have had underfunded education for decades, but people are still trying to say, 'Let's have public school employees just sort of add extra work.' You're going to have teachers teach another class? You're going to have over 200 kids. That is not a good thing, either. Not being able to personalize instruction is not the solution."

School all day

High school principals, meanwhile, have been meeting the free period challenge creatively. This year, each school had a part-time campus monitor to manage study halls; the new proposal would double that.

Grant Principal Vivien Orlen says that's not enough; that the allocation of staff positions isn't proportional to the number of students in her building.

"We were hoping to be able to provide a full day to our freshmen and our sophomores," Orlen says. "They're 14, 15 and 16 years old. They're young, and their parents want them looked after all day when they send them to school. While we won't be able to provide all freshmen and sophomores a full day, we will be able to provide all students with seven classes across the school."

Lincoln Principal Peyton Chapman says she's borrowed some of her teaching staff and tapped into the community to create more meaningful study hall environment.

Besides traditional study hall, students may now choose to spend their time at a new math center; doing test prep or test makeup in a new mini-computer lab; seeking tutoring from their peers or Portland State University; or focusing on Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish in a language-focused study hall.

At Franklin, Principal Shay James has kept freshmen and sophomores in study hall so they don't have early arrivals or late releases unless approved by their parents.

Jefferson Middle College Principal Margaret Calvert says the ability to offer seven classes to her students affects them differently, because they'd been trying to free up students' days so they could take classes at Portland Community College across the street.

At Benson High, Principal Carol Campbell was able to hire two adult math tutors to work in their study hall (which they call their learning center) through grant funds.

At Wilson, Principal Brian Chatard says some students use their free period to go to neighboring school Rieke Elementary to volunteer there; next year, they'll also go to Robert Gray and Jackson middle schools.

"I don't know what we’re going to do with study halls next year yet," Chatard says. "The budget’s changed three times in a week ... but we’ll figure it out, because that's what we do."

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