K-8s from a teacher’s perspective

Everyone’s a critic, it’s true. It is easy to point fingers, but try to fix something? This takes more effort than most people can muster.

I have been a witness, for the last four years, to Portland Public Schools’ fiasco known as K-8 schools. I have tried to shed light on the problems created by this policy and had hoped to, as they say, be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The district has a history of not accepting blame when it is due, continuing with programs proven not to work, and trying to spin it all in a positive light. As PPS entrenches itself deeper into this hole it has dug itself, I cannot help but throw in my two cents, both as a K-8 teacher in PPS, and as a parent to two children in a K-8 school.

Perhaps the most obvious problem with K-8s is that the facilities housing them are woefully inadequate. My school this year, as of June 12, is losing its staff room to a classroom and the nurse will be in the hall. We were promised a brand new computer lab, but alas will have to settle for a mobile cart of computers to be wheeled from classroom to classroom. There is no science lab, our library is extremely small, and the counselor has to share a room with several other programs. Already, there is a portable on the playground. It is true that some schools have enough space, but many do not.

Indeed, some schools have scaled back their K-8 plans due to space constrictions. However, this policy is not applied consistently. Several times, in other K-8s I have taught, facilities people have gone on walk-throughs to plan for the upcoming years. Never have I seen staff asked for input. Indeed, I have seen several staff members give input, only to have it ignored. This resulted in configurations that then had to be changed once the school year started.

Even if facilities for K-8s were sufficient, the content taught and the approach to this content is not at all up to the standards of most middle schools. Many middle schools in K-8s are taught using a self-contained model. This means that one teacher teaches almost all subject matter. The problem with this is that the higher the grade level, the more complex the subjects become, and most teachers, no matter how gifted they are, cannot adequately teach every subject.

Most middle school teachers teach one or two subjects. They are experts in those subjects. As a parent, I want my children to learn from experts. Additionally, electives are taught, usually, by those same teachers. So, on top of teaching 4-5 academic subjects, middle school teachers in K-8s are required to teach an additional elective. Hence, lots of knitting, badminton, and study halls are offered. No music, no home economics or languages, as these would require actually hiring additional teachers.

Lastly, in addition to lacking satisfactory facilities and academic support, K-8s have no one steering the boat, so to speak. Most administrators are trained in elementary protocols and procedures, not middle school models. I have called several people in the district who were supposed to be “in charge” or helping those in charge, and have gotten nowhere.

The last phone call I made, on June 12, was to a facilities person. She got irritated with me asking “Why do we not have adequate room for our programs?” She then started asking me what my solutions were. I offered two or three, and she said each one had already been considered and thrown out. But it left me wondering. If you really wanted my opinion, as a teacher in a K-8, why didn’t you ask me four years ago?

Sheila Wilcox is a PPS parent and K8 teacher.