4J Board Faces High ‘Level of Skepticism’ to Schedule Change

Eugene’s 4J School Board agreed last week to convene a work session this week to address issues that have arisen over moving all district high schools to a common 3×5 schedule. The proposal to address the schedule change came after the Eugene Education Association (EEA) asked the board to postpone the move, citing opposition by a majority of high school teachers, and more than two dozen parents, teachers and students spoke against the change at a packed meeting. The board also addressed the latest budget shortfall projections and proposed cuts to services in a number of programs.

At the March 6 meeting, Superintendent Sheldon Berman said he had sent staff “a hard email” on the 2013-14 budget. Although state legislators are seeking increased funds for schools, the district still faces cuts in the range of $10 million. This comes on top of steady reductions for more than two decades, including a $20 million cut in 2011.

“Given all the reductions made in the past 20 years, we have few avenues available to us for further cutbacks,” Berman wrote in the email. “None of the proposals for reductions that have been put forward are ones we desire. They are all exceptionally painful, but represent our best current thinking about how the district can make it through this very challenging time.”

Proposals on the table — to be decided by June — include eliminating central office library support, restructuring health centers and nursing services, and reducing professional development. Funding cuts and new state rules regarding health records already have spurred closing all high school clinics by the end of this school year.

“Even given these severe measures, we are likely to see increases in class size and potentially have an even shorter school year,” Berman wrote.

The teachers’ voices were heard in a presentation by EEA President Tad Shannon, who shared petitions signed by those opposed to the schedule change: 91 percent of teachers at North Eugene High School, 81 percent of teachers at Sheldon High School, and 74 percent of teachers at South Eugene High School signed the petition; 79 percent of International High School (IHS) teachers previously signed a letter to the board outlining their concerns.

“I would urge you to think about what the ramifications of this level of skepticism means among the staff and the trained professionals that will ultimately be the ones who will be operating under this schedule,” Shannon said. “We hope that you will have the courage to step back like you did with the middle school decision and give it a little more time until we can either demonstrate that the 3×5 in fact works and then begin to win the trust of staff, or to abandon the notion of imposing a standardized schedule on all schools altogether.”

Kelly Terwilliger, the mother of two South students, expressed her concerns: “Are we really going to put teachers, students and staff through a significant adjustment for a model with no positive demonstrated outcome? Where is the data? … If the teachers in this community, our experts in the teaching of high school students, do not support proposed educational reforms, why should anybody?”

Under the new schedule, students who want to take rigorous academic courses such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) would have to choose between those courses and music classes or other electives. “Should any student have to make this choice?” asked Tracy Ross, band director at Sheldon, who noted that a 3×5 schedule will cut a third or more students in the school’s bands. “Why are we limiting choices for students?”

Selena Blick, a junior at Churchill (which went to the 3×5 this year), and an IHS student, said she had a full year of music previously but now can take only a trimester. “Students take band to be part of a community and it is important that this same community is maintained throughout an entire year,” she said, noting that even students who are not in IHS are having scheduling problems.

Said Julie Butler, the parent of a Churchill student, “What happened to making sure we educate the whole child? Students are not making a choice, they’re having a choice taken away from them.”

Board member Jim Torrey proposed a work session to “look at where we are in the implementation process for the three remaining high schools [and] look at any unintended consequences that we may not have been ware of when we passed this.” The work session was scheduled for Wednesday, March 13.

Board Chair Jennifer Geller made clear that the board voted on the schedule change last spring and does not plan another vote. But she added later that “we need a schedule that supports students, teaching, and our programs.  If any schedule does not do that, I think it is possible that the schedule will either change or be modified.”

Berman expressed surprise at the opposition to the 3×5, given opportunities last year to comment. “The necessity of moving to one schedule was primary,” he said, and 30 educators met for more than 40 hours, held forums, met at schools, and decided to institute the 3×5.

But Berman also noted his concern about the incompatibility of the IHS schedule with music. “I’ve said all along that no one should be excluded from music and that music should be all year long, … and I’m deeply committed to that.” He said he is exploring with principals a number of ways to achieve that so students don’t have to face that choice.

“This was not an economic decision,” Berman said. “It was a decision to really advance the interest of student performance and our own professional staff so that they could collaborate across systems and build a stronger unity and a stronger system, and … to become one district that moves forward with equity among regions.” — Anne Bridgman