As Portland schools were gearing up for winter break, teachers were pleading with the district for help. Weeks of negotiating between Portland Public Schools and its teachers union, the Portland Association of Teachers, culminated in a stalemate late Friday, Dec. 17. Any schedule changes are likely to take place in late January or early February.
At issue: teachers say they need workload relief in the form of more time each week to plan lessons, grade assignments, make changes to curriculum if necessary and do other paperwork. Special education teachers say need adequate time to write or revise individualized education plans — commonly referred to as IEPs — as legally required for students who receive special education services.
"We have been telling you our planning time is being taken up by additional paperwork, additional student behavior needs … that the planning time we have is being eaten up and we need more," Charity Powell, a member of the PAT bargaining team, told district administrators during a series of meetings on Dec. 16 and 17.
Powell said the current time allotment is "woefully inadequate."
The school district has pushed back, noting a schedule shift would decrease classroom instruction hours for students and potentially burden families to find childcare or make student pick-up arrangements. But teachers in Portland started the school year with less time to do their jobs than teachers in neighboring districts.
According to data presented by the union during bargaining sessions, schools in nearby districts like Parkrose and David Douglas provide more grading, planning and preparation days for teachers than PPS. PPS currently provides three days throughout the year. David Douglas provides three-and-a-half. Parkrose Elementary School provides four days and Parkrose High School gives teachers five days.
Oregon City School District gives teachers six-an-a-half days and Eugene School District provides eight total days, according to the union's data. Those same districts also provide more professional development days to teachers than PPS does.
"Teachers are calling me and saying 'I cry in my car every day after school so that I can get it out before I go and see my family. They are saying they're developing ulcers but they can't take a day off because there's no substitutes to (fill in)," Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said earlier in December. Thiel and other educators say teacher burnout is at an all-time high due to increased workloads that spill over into weekends, and people are leaving the profession at an accelerated pace.
"Our educators are giving everything they have until they cannot give anything more. They have to take leave or quit," Thiel added.
School year unlike any other
While state education leaders, parents and school district leaders reveled in the return to fulltime in-person learning in September, districts were constrained with staff shortages that affected school bus schedules, administrative personnel and educators. Things have improved since the start of the year. PPS began with an estimated 112 unfilled educator positions. By December the district was down to 48 vacancies.
Still, teachers said they're facing increased stress and demands. That's because with more than a year in distance learning, many students fell behind.
Data presented by district leaders in late November showed Black, Latino and Native American high school students are failing classes at twice the rate of their white peers. The same is true for English language learner students. Reports of fighting, harassment, weapons on school grounds and suicide screenings have also increased and at least three PPS high schools show 30% or more of students are chronically absent.
While PPS administrators have used that data to argue against making any cuts to the school day, educators say it's evidence that the current system isn't working.
"Your data shows this school year is having an incredibly difficult impact on students and your response is 'well, we could pretty much tweak it a little bit and continue doing the same thing,'" John Berkey, teachers union staff member, told district administrators in late November.
The teachers union's bargaining team told PPS administrators that educators are struggling to get their students up to speed and are facing much greater levels of differentiation among students.
Elementary teachers told district officials that some third-grade students are still reading at a kindergarten level, so they have to find reading materials and lessons that meet each student where they are developmentally.
Catching students up requires a greater degree of planning and individualized lessons, teachers said.
What's on the table
To accomplish that, teachers asked for early release days for K-8 students. Right now, the proposal on the table is whether to end school one or two hours early for elementary and middle school students once a week.
"The rationale, as we continue to build and have this discussion, is to restart into the second semester and then build upon professional learning with early release time and release days with time for our educators to come together," said Cheryl Proctor, chief of schools for PPS.
At the high school level, the proposal to eliminate one in-person day each week is likely off the table.
The union initially proposed having one day for asynchronous learning and flex time, meaning students could get small-group support from teachers, or work remotely at home. The rationale? High schoolers have eight different classes each term, broken up into 'A' days and 'B' days. Half of a student's classes are taken twice a week, with Fridays being a combination of shorter periods of all eight classes, often called "skinny days." Teachers say student attendance is typically lowest on those combination, or "skinny" days.
As of Dec. 17, it seemed the union and school district had moved on from that idea. Instead, the union and PPS are negotiating the addition of flex periods — student-directed study periods. Teachers want flex days every day. PPS has proposed two flex periods a week, but that may not be enough, Thiel said.
"Two flex days is not an increase, it's what we had before the pandemic," Thiel noted. Flex periods, if added, would likely occur in the morning, to ensure students remain on campus.
Students currently have flex days, but each high school handles them differently, with some showing more flex days on the calendar than others.
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