Friday, October 10, 2014

Too Many Children

The sign worked: Beaverton passed its school bond. 

This is not my school, though I do drive by it daily on my way to work (it's Sunset High School, in case you're wondering). In 2013, Beaverton voters passed a bond measure that accomplished what this parent (also the principal of Sunset High School) hoped to achieve. Class sizes went down, elementary schools restored music and PE, and teachers, students, and parents all breathed long sighs of relief.

I work in a district that also features large classes, reduced services, and crumbling buildings. Unlike Beaverton, Reynolds hasn't passed a bond in over a decade. That bond expires next spring, when the district is putting another capital improvement bond in front of voters, expected to pass because it won't increase taxes at all. These improvements should bring class sizes down simply by adding classrooms to buildings like Scott Elementary, where my music room shares space with a computer lab, art classes are held in the gym, and the kindergarten classroom we're adding in a couple of weeks will be depriving several specialists of the room where they do their prep work, consigning them to whatever corner of the building they can find.

Last year, when I started at Scott, we were short a first grade teacher. That meant I had 45 first graders coming to the gym for music (I didn't get a real room until this fall). Even with two aides for each class, this was unmanageable. The hiring of the third teacher brought sanity to the first grade, but not the kindergarten, which had 27-30 children in each class, many of whom became "high flyers"--children whose behavioral issues overwhelm the ability of both the teacher and the students to stay focused on lessons. There were also two fifth grade classes of 35 students each, and again, each had large numbers of high flyers. I saw them all, struggled with teaching many of them in the gym, and found myself burning out by the end of January, when I switched to a different school with its own share of high flyers, though none of its class sizes approached those I'd known at Scott.

I'm back at Scott and, as I said, in my own room which, despite the presence of a computer lab on the other side of a room divider, is leaps and bounds better than teaching music in a gym. Much to my delight, kindergarten has become the highlight of my day: being in the smaller space, with a circular rug to focus them, keeps the little ones focused on the lesson. First grade is another matter: we gained more children over the summer, resulting in class sizes of 30, 30, and 32. The high flyers from last year are all back, and all but one or two of them are just as difficult as I remember them being when I left the building in January. This year's fifth grade classes, on the other hand, all have manageable sizes, maxing out at 24, but every class has half a dozen children who either cannot or refuse to permit their classmates to learn.

Yesterday after school, we had a twenty minute staff meeting at which our principal explained the district's new approach to discipline: restorative justice. This approach keeps high flyers in the building, works to have them resolve their issues in the classroom, and teaches them to improve their behavior now, while they are still malleable, rather than setting them on a course that leads to prison. It makes excellent sense, and as I understand it, there's plenty of research to support its positive impact on children.

What wasn't present in that twenty minute description was any sense of how the teachers at Scott Elementary will be able to apply it. After the principal left, there was a lengthy venting session as one after another of them aired problems and frustrations they're experiencing with higher-than-normal numbers of high flyers. Many of the restorative justice ideas revolve around classroom meetings, when the class as a community works to resolve a problem. I've seen this practice at work for years now, since long before anyone had ever heard of restorative justice. One fifth grade teacher stated she was spending most of her instructional time on meetings, teaching and reteaching and rereteaching appropriate behaviors to children who just don't get it. The presence of so many high flyers in her room meant she was only getting in, as she put it, twenty minutes of actual instruction a day. My experience with her class bears this out: if it weren't for a handful of children dominating the class's half hour with me with their disruptive behavior, I could be teaching that class three times as much as I actually manage.

Some teachers bridled at the thought that suspensions will only be applied in the worst cases. One had had a laptop stolen from her room, and thought that something like that ought to have a consequence more significant than the proverbial slap on the wrist (proverbial because corporal punishment has been appropriately removed from the school administrator's disciplinary toolbox). The counselor told her that research has demonstrated--and, if we thought about it, all our own experience bears it out--that suspensions just don't work. They send children back into the environment in which they learned the behaviors they're punishing, under the supervision of the parents who taught them to act in these ways, who are themselves now doubly irritated at being saddled with a child on a work day. If these children are to learn how to be productive members of society, rather than imprisoned drains on taxpayers, the place for them to do it is at school.

And yet, their presence in the classroom is impacting everyone's learning. Last year Scott School went from a level 3 on the state report card--passing--to level 1, the lowest rating. The consensus of the teachers yesterday afternoon was that it all comes down to one thing: we need more adults in the building. Large classes need to be smaller. All classes need aides. The principal needs an assistant, as well as a dedicated restorative justice specialist. We need adults who can take the high flyers aside, help them come down from whatever excitable state they're in, mediate whatever disputes they're having with each other, help them learn how to manage these issues the next time they come up, without having to bring the rest of the class, all of whom already understand these things, into the picture, robbing them of valuable instructional time.

It's a simple solution. It's also expensive. One thing that has made kindergarten easier for me is that each class started the year with an aide, but those aides are temporary employees. When the new teacher starts in two weeks, those aides' contracts will end. Aides are not as expensive as teachers--they're classified, rather than certified, and work on a wage rather than salary basis--but having them still adds up. As another teacher pointed out with anger in his voice, the district's priority has been putting iPads, rather than aides, in every classroom.

The solutions these veteran teachers see to our current difficulties are literally old school: smaller classes, more adults in the building and, one other factor I haven't mentioned, more recess time for the children. Letting them blow off steam outdoors, rather than sitting them down in the library for twenty minutes of Imagine Learning, could help many of them find the calmer center they need to interact more appropriately with their peers and their teachers.

The principles of restorative justice are something we all adhere to. We love all these children, and we want to make our school a safe haven for them, the one place in their difficult loves where they can find security and stability. That's what we're doing to the best of our abilities. Unfortunately, there are just too many of them, and not enough of us, to achieve that ideal. Until we can correct that unbalanced ratio, we'll keep at it, doing our best, knowing that far too many high flyers are slipping through our fingers without learning the skills they need most to become successful students and, ultimately, successful adults.

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