Lane County educators say the governor must reduce class sizes and address behavioral and mental health issues
Register-Guard - 12/16/2018
Dec. 16--Teachers and other educators in Lane County want change.
They want smaller class sizes and more support and funding for mental health efforts and student behavioral challenges.
A lack of support in those areas, educators say, is keeping them from being effective and from providing an adequate education to students. In turn, the challenging atmosphere in schools across Oregon is causing burn out and pushing teachers to quit, their union representatives say.
The state's teachers are facing significant issues, among them violent student behaviors and students who are experiencing severe mental illness including depression and anxiety. They're dealing those and other problems in classrooms that are overflowing with students.
Overcrowded classrooms were the number one concern voiced by educators or education advocates responding to an informal Register-Guard survey taken earlier this month. Mental health needs and the lack of resources to allocate toward them, including counseling, was closely tied with the need for more support for behavioral outbursts, student violence and disrupted learning.
Essentially, local educators argue, a lack of funding for public education in general is the root of the problem.
And Gov. Kate Brown seems to agree.
In her budget proposal for the 2019-2021 biennium released late last month, Brown identifies education as one of the most pressing issues for the state.
"We must finally fix our underfunded education system," Brown writes.
In the proposal, Brown breaks down how funding would be allocated to various programs and efforts, primarily to reduce class sizes, extend the school year and expand career technical education programs.
Of her $23.6 billion budget plan, $11.8 billion would be spent on education.
About $797.3 million of that funding would be used to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and to extend the school year to 180 days in the state's 197 school districts. The budget would allocate $133 million to fully fund Career Technical Education programs in public schools under Measure 98 approved by voters in 2016.
In addition, Brown is proposing a $2 billion education "investment package" she says would address long-term structural obstacles and improve the education system at all levels from preschool to college.
That investment package -- likely funded by a significant tax increase -- proposes an additional $358.9 million to expand preschool and kindergarten readiness programs to serve 10,000 more children.
Brown's budget proposal for the coming biennium is aggressive but not guaranteed to be passed in full by the Oregon Legislature. Even though Democrats have a three-fifths super-majority in each chamber of the Legislature and could pass legislation without help from their Republican counterparts, Brown still would need voter support for any major tax hikes.
In addition, Brown didn't say in her budget proposal or presentation of the plan where funding for schools might come from and instead stated that she "expects the Legislature to reform Oregon's revenue system to adequately fund our education system."
And that leaves educators with uncertainty about the future.
"Something has to change in a very foundational way," said Jerry Rosiek, a University of Oregon Department of Education Studies professor. "Assault seems pretty extreme; a more than 3 percent dropout rate across the state seems pretty extreme ... what level of failure are we willing to tolerate before we are willing to make a tectonic shift in our velocity of approaching the support for public education? Brown's proposal remains incremental but not the foundational shift that we need."
The average elementary school class size in Oregon is 25 students, according to the state Department of Education, although classes can be much smaller in rural schools and much larger in urban schools -- there is no state-mandated cap on class sizes in Oregon. National Center for Education Statistics data show the state has some of the largest classes in the nation.
"With an average ratio of one teacher to every 25 kids, teachers struggle to meet the needs of each student, and classroom climate issues often result in conflicts among students or teachers not feeling supported," Brown states in her education policy agenda released in September.
In the Eugene school district, the median class size was 27 students in 2018, according to state Department of Education data. The majority of those classes, about 840 out of 1,700, had between 25 and 36 students each. About 490 classes had between 16 and 25 students.
Eugene-Springfield area teachers say large class sizes impact their ability to reach every student, to understand their individual needs and help them with school work.
Robin Hanson, who's been teaching for 36 years, says she has 30 students in her first grade class at Prairie Mountain School in the west Eugene Bethel School District.
"It's too many kids," she said. "You just can't get to everyone who needs your help. Even for something simple like capitalizing letters at the the beginning of a sentence. Students sometimes need individualized help and you just can't provide that."
The Bethel district also had a median class size of 27 students in 2018, state education department data show. About half of the 595 classes had between 26 and 35 students.
In Hanson's case, the school's principal has provided her with an additional educational assistant to help in the classroom -- but she needs more assistance.
"Our principal has been great in giving us extra support," Hanson said. "But it's just not enough. We need smaller class sizes to provide a quality education to these students."
High school and middle school teachers also are feeling the impact of large class sizes, which they say is significantly impairing their ability to teach and hurting their students' ability to learn.
"If you want quality education for students, you have to have quality educators and allow them to do well and they just can't in a room full of 40 or 42 students," said Curt Nordling, a math teacher at Willamette High School in the Bethel district.
A study from the National Education Policy Center found that class sizes of no more than 17 students in kindergarten through third grade result in better student outcomes, especially for low-income students and students of color. The study also found that students in those reduced size classes were more likely to graduate on time in four years and go to college.
But it's an expensive problem to fix, according to state Department of Education officials, who estimate it would cost about $107 million to reduce elementary school class sizes across the state for the 2019-21 biennium. For middle and high schools it would cost an additional $127 million.
Although Brown in her budget proposal wants to allocate nearly $800 million to reducing class sizes and increasing instructional time. Smaller class sizes mean hiring more teachers to teach in more classrooms -- and it's unclear in Brown's budget how that would be accomplished.
"Districts would be able to submit a plan to receive funds through the Department of Education to reduce class sizes" in kindergarten through third grade to reach class sizes of 20 students in kindergarten and 23 students in grades one through three, said Brown's press secretary Kate Kondayen, who did not offer specifics about where extra learning space would come from.
Extreme and violent student behaviors
Lane County-area teachers also want more money allocated to dealing with extreme student behaviors.
In the last few years, school staff in the Bethel, Eugene and Springfield school districts -- along with their counterparts across the state -- have seen the frequency and intensity of violent, threatening or disruptive behaviors steadily increase, especially at the elementary level, district officials said in a Register-Guard report published last month.
Teachers, educational assistants and other school staff in the three local districts have reported students throwing chairs at windows, hitting, kicking and biting staff and other students, yelling obscenities and, in some cases, breaking glass or leaving teachers with concussions or other serious injuries, according to educators and their union representatives.
"I'm a new kindergarten teacher in Springfield and to Oregon and I'm desperately seeking HELP!" Phuong Kelley wrote in an email. "My heart hurts when I see students safety is compromised multiple times each day. Disruptive learning has become a serious concern for staff and students."
Kelley said although there are protocols in place to respond to such behaviors, they aren't enough.
"General education teachers do not have the support or resources to balance the needs of all learners" Kelley said.
Federal law requires districts to ensure students with disabilities, whether behavioral, learning or physical, receive a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Additionally, the law constrains how teachers may respond when a student has an emotional outburst at school.
According to the Oregon School Employees Association, the labor union representing teachers, the state lays out specific programs districts may use to train staff on recognizing student behavior patterns, de-escalation techniques and -- when necessary -- how to temporarily restrain a student. By law, staff may only restrain students if and for so long as the student's behavior poses a reasonable threat of imminent serious bodily injury to the student or others, and less restrictive measures would not be effective.
Increased student violence and behavioral issues have been intensifying mostly in the past five years, and state officials do not yet know how to adequately address the complex problem. Districts are not required to track the number of times students are violent, become disruptive or prompt room clears, leaving the scope of the issue mostly unknown -- at least by state officials.
Teachers in the area say it's hard to balance specialized education with general instruction.
"There's not enough support for students who require varying mental health supports and special behavioral needs," said Curtis Norris, a fifth-grade teacher in the Springfield district who has a number of students who are on a behavioral individualized educational plan or on a behavioral intervention plan.
"Because there's not enough money to hire the supports needed to help these students, they are placed in general education classrooms until they essentially do something bad enough to garner the attention of the administration. General education teachers are now being expected to manage students with behavioral needs, while trying to deliver quality instruction to all students in the classroom."
In an effort to determine how to best solve the issue, the state last spring formed the "Advisory Committee on Safe and Effective Schools for All Students," to make recommendations to help the state to ensure that "every Oregon student experiences an inclusive, safe and welcoming learning environment."
The committee, comprising 45 members including students, parents, educators, researchers, mental health experts, legislators and others, made nine policy recommendations to begin addressing issues. Ultimately, the committee deemed it "imperative" for the state to reevaluate its approach to supporting all students and school staff in schools.
The recommendations include looking at and potentially changing biased policies and practices, collecting better data, adding mental and physical services in schools, providing support to transfer students, implementing intervention services, and training educators in culturally responsive practices, restorative justice, trauma-informed practices, de-escalation skills, bullying and harassment prevention and suicide prevention, among others.
In Brown's budget proposal, she states that $6.3 million would be allocated to implement recommendations of the Safe and Effective Schools for All Students Task Force. The allocation would attempt to address mental health and behavioral concerns in schools.
"These funds will support initiatives that equip schools with the ability to create inclusive, safe and welcoming environments conducive to learning for all students. It will include capacity for coordination between educator and health professionals, support for the anti-bullying strategies and suicide prevention, in addition to a statewide threat assessment system," the budget proposal states.
Overwhelmingly, teachers in the Eugene-Springfield area have identified mental health support for students and staff as a major concern.
Teachers and other educators say there should be more counselors at each school who are dedicated to providing mental health help, and that large class sizes directly affect mental health as well.
"There is a mental health crisis in our schools," said Amanda Greene-Chacon, a Springfield High School science teacher. "We see students who have severe trauma and have never had the opportunity to work with a school counselor or psychologist. The elementary and middle schools do not have adequate numbers of mental health specialists. At the high school level, we are seeing unprecedented levels of problematic, disrespectful and even threatening behaviors. We do not have an alternative education system to serve students who are not successful in a traditional school setting."
Examples of severe trauma include homelessness, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, severe poverty or other experiences that may create barriers to students' social, emotional and educational progress. Such experiences also may lead to depression and suicide.
"Forty-seven percent of children in Oregon classrooms today have experienced adverse conditions during their early childhood," Oregon schools chief Colt Gill said in an editorial letter. "Some are hungry or neglected. Some have lived with severe drug and alcohol abuse in their homes. Some are witnessing or experiencing violence in their homes. And some don't have homes at all.
Greene-Chacon said the way public education is presented to students also is part of the problem.
"I believe (that) the real issue is the way we serve our students -- in overcrowded classrooms where the pressures of standardized testing have robbed teachers of their ability to provide age-appropriate educational opportunities," Greene-Chacon said.
At the beginning of the year, Lane County saw a spike youth suicides. Six youths have died by suicide so far this year. Five of those occurred between mid-January and early March.
Typically the county averages seven adolescent suicides per year, according to Lane County Public Health officials.
Julie Steyding, a licensed clinical social worker in the Springfield School District, said mental health services would be most useful within schools.
"School districts are trying to rely on partnering with community agencies that do not have the capacity or resources to serve the numbers of students and families we have that actually need services," she said. "Districts need to employ mental health professionals (in house) that can serve families/students, connect those with higher levels of need to appropriate services and help guide districts to better serve the mental health needs of our students, families and staff as a whole."
Follow Alisha Roemeling on Twitter @alisharoemeling. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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