Walking out for our teachers

December 18, 2013

Students and parents are showing their solidarity with Portland teachers as their union confronts school administrators who want to raise class size limits.

SOME 70 students walked out of Wilson High School on December 13 to demand smaller class sizes and show their support for the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), which is in the midst of heated contract negotiations with the Portland Public Schools (PPS).

Holding signs that read "Unlimited class sizes limit our education" and "Honk if you love small class sizes," students marched to rally at a busy section of Southwest Capital Highway, where they were joined by a dozen parents and community members. Students chanted, "We deserve our education, we're the future of this nation!" and "What do we want? Smaller class sizes! When do we want them? Now!"

Students are particularly concerned about a part of the district's final contract offer that takes away language limiting class sizes--a step that could lead to ballooning numbers of students for each teacher and leave the teachers' union unable to negotiate about the issue.

Both sides are currently in a "cooling off" period, but if neither side concedes, the teachers will soon be forced to decide whether to accept the district's offer or go on strike.

Students from Wilson High School picket outside their school in support of teachers
Students from Wilson High School picket outside their school in support of teachers (Walker K. Devine)

"We don't support [the district's proposal]!" said Emily, a Wilson junior. "I think that [a walkout] is the best way to get our statement out there and show that we as students don't support this--to show it's not just the teachers, that they're not alone in this."

The Wilson walkout followed a walkout at Roosevelt High School on December 2, and a lunchtime student rally at Cleveland High School a few weeks earlier. In addition to supporting their teachers, these actions are a part of rebuilding and strengthening a district-wide student union that aims to make sure students' voices are heard and organize around the issues students care about.

FOR PORTLAND students, class size is no small issue. A recent article in the Oregonian titled "Oregon schools pack in most students per teacher in history, state says," showed that Oregon teachers on average have 35 percent more students than the typical U.S. teacher. The report stated that, for 2012, classes of 30 or 35 were common in Oregon middle and high schools. At Wilson, one computer science class is packed with 45 students.

Andries Menger, a junior at Wilson and member of the Wilson Student Union (WSU), said that for the most part, Wilson class sizes are "alright, around 25 students." However, students are worried that classes could dramatically inflate under the district's proposed contract, citing what happened in Beaverton after this nearby school district removed similar class size-limiting language from their teachers' contract.

Beaverton's "new normal" high schools class size is now 35 to 55 students per class, and many teachers have over 50 students. "The district is saying, 'This won't happen, that's just a looming threat, you just need to trust us,'" said Menger. "But we don't. Nobody trusts them because they are trying to do this...We want something set in stone."

As reported in SocialistWorker.org, Oregon's mainstream media has gone to town trying to paint the teachers' union as selfish, accusatorily asking, "Who's in it for the kids, and who is using kids as a bargaining chip to gain power?"

Yet despite the biased coverage, students are clear about whose side they are on, and about what's at the heart of the teachers' negotiations. "We've all seen how teachers are forced to not teach as well as they could just because they have too many kids in a class," said Menger.

Wilson senior and WSU member Keenan Murray added, "Already, teachers have less time to give students individual attention. [Teachers] are more overwhelmed, and they don't have enough time to plan new activities because they have more grading to do at home."

All of these things affect students, he said, and would only be made worse by the district's proposal. "This is why the teachers' proposal is what's better for students."

THE AFTERNOON before the walkout, Wilson Principal Brian Chatard sent an e-mail to all parents urging them to discuss the protest with their children and help them "reconsider the decision to leave school during class time." Parents and students were told that a marked absence would affect their participation in extracurricular activities that day, such as drama rehearsals and sports competitions.

"It is completely reasonable for students to get involved, discuss the issues, form their own opinions and, if necessary, express their constitutional right to protest, march, rally, chant, etc." wrote Principal Chatard in the e-mail. "I am proud to see that our students want to have their voice heard before the issue is decided...However, it is not acceptable for students to leave the building during instructional time."

Menger explained that the smaller-than-desired turnout was due to fear among students, not apathy. In the days before the walkout, he says that many students told him directly that they were in support of the walkout, but that they'd be "risking too much," fearing they would face suspension or detention after seeing Chatard's e-mail.

"In reality, they're not actually risking too much," he said. "It's just that our rules are so vague that they're being interpreted incorrectly and used against us. I think that when [the students who didn't walk out] see that we did this, and we were okay, we'll begin to see more students joining us in future actions."

However, while the intimidation from the administration may have helped to hold back a portion of students, it had the opposite effect on some parents.

"The principal informed us that our kids would be punished if they participate, and asked parents to help their students 'reconsider participating,'" wrote parent Justin Norton-Kertson on a Facebook event page he created in response to the principal's e-mail. "Instead, I am encouraging my kid to walk out, and I'll be standing across the street from the walkout meeting point with a sign that says, 'Parents support teachers and the student walkout!'"

One Wilson parent and member of IATSE Local 28 who attended the protest, expressed her support for the students' walkout as well as her own frustrations with the district. "Some of us have had kids in the school system for a long time and we've watched it degrade, and we're seeing [the district] not be [transparent] in explaining everything," she said.

She explained how the district e-mails parents their updates and their version of what's going on with the negotiations, but when parents ask for the teachers' side they are just provided with links and told to find it themselves. "So PPS can just e-mail us with their side of the story, but teachers don't get the same right. I think it's wrong that we're getting one-sided messaging," she said.

The parent hoped that rallies like these could help make more people aware of the issue and explained that, even if they don't have kids in the school system, Portland residents should support teachers. "These are our future leaders," she said. "We've got to educate them."

In addition to parents, students from other high schools came out to support the action at Wilson. Ian Jackson, one of a handful of Cleveland High School students present at the walkout and a member of Cleveland's Student Union, addressed the crowd at the rally, speaking to why he and others from Cleveland had come:

Solidarity is our weapon. We can walk out here at Wilson, but we also need to talk to our comrades and our students across the city, and we need to organize walkouts and actions all across this town. It's our responsibility to talk to our friends about the teachers' contract, to talk to our friends about class sizes. We need to understand the struggles in each and every school in Portland...

We've had a walkout at Wilson. We've had a walkout at Roosevelt. We've seen actions at Cleveland. But we need to bring these actions together. But we can't just speckle walkouts across the city; we have to create a movement. We need to come together as students. Today's the beginning.

With an upcoming "Parents Support Portland Teachers" rally, Portland is also beginning to see a more coordinated effort of community support for PAT.

The fight for smaller class sizes in Portland is just one piece of what it will take to win the schools Portland students deserve--and Portland should be proud that students are already a part of that fight.

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