New schedule shakes Washougal teachers

Union president: some ‘looking to leave’ district over planning time cut

Washougal teachers say school district leaders are ignoring concerns about a new schedule that alters teacher-planning time.

Starting in the 2018-19 school year, the Washougal School District plans to swap its three-hour early release on Wednesdays with a 40-minute early release and additional 70 hours of annual specialized instruction in visual arts, physical education and media technology.

Frank Zahn, president of the local teachers’ union, the Washougal Association of Educators, said the district is implementing the schedule despite the fact that teachers and union leaders have continued to voice their concerns.

“I’ve heard from teachers that this is upsetting enough to an elementary teacher that some of them are looking to leave,” Zahn said.

The main concern from educators regarding the new schedule is the impact on students without careful and due study and on teachers, Zahn said.

The idea behind having the longer early release time was to give teachers time to work together in professional learning communities, Zahn said.

“They could study issues of curriculum, student issues, they could plan together how to do the work cooperatively with everyone,” he said. “At the elementary basis, (this time) is fairly crucial. As (students) get younger, you have to plan more.”

With the new schedule, the elementary teachers still have 40 minutes of early release to be designated for professional learning time, a schedule that’s consistent with all K-12 schools in Washougal, according to the district.

Heidi Kleser, a third grade teacher at Columbia River Gorge Elementary School, has resigned from her teaching position in Washougal, effective at the end of the school year.

Kleser’s resignation is not completely due to the schedule change, but she said that the 40-minute early release model is not enough time for teachers, parents and staff to communicate with one another.

“It will now be impossible to meet with other staff and families, because there won’t be any shared time available,” Kleser said. “This is disastrous for the idea of collaboration. Teachers will be forced to work hours of unpaid overtime in order to do the work that they have done well on Wednesdays.”

Zahn said that giving teachers this opportunity to plan together was a roaring success at the elementary level.

This designated time has helped students and teachers because they were able to cross communicate across grade lines and consult with specialists, Zahn said.

“That 40 minutes will be on Wednesday afternoons only, and I can tell you that the communications that we have had will effectively grind to a halt because 40 minutes in terms of education goes by extremely quickly,” he said.

Kleser said that teachers will face more challenges with planning and prepping materials because their colleagues will not be available to consult on shared projects and assignments.

“Instead, teachers will be working in isolation while their class is at art or (physical education), with the uncertainty that their planning time will be interrupted since their students are still in school,” Kleser said. “Perhaps the office will call and ask to send a student home per a parent’s request, perhaps there’s a behavior or health issue of a student during the specialist time, and many other scenarios where interruptions can happen.”

Kleser said that parents may be in support of the new model because of the addition of art classes and added physical education (PE) time, and teachers are in favor of those details, too.

“The thing is, there could be many ways to achieve these things without taking away shared time on Wednesdays,” she said.

Zahn said he spoke during the Washougal School Board meeting on March 27 because he was disappointed by the lack of communication with the school district.

Teachers at the elementary level are upset because of the uncertainty of the future and not knowing what the future program will look like, Zahn said.

“Many of the teachers with four, five or 10 years of experience, they’re looking at leaving this environment that they’ve worked in and created over these years to go out into the unknown, simply because they see that environment being drastically altered,” Zahn said.

As a music teacher, Zahn said he has no problem with the new art curriculum — elementary schools formerly only had two weeks of art classes each year — but that he is wary of reinventing old ideas.

As far as initiating the new art curriculum, teachers said they have received little information besides the fact that it is going to be an hour long class once a week in a classroom, Zahn said.

He added that the phrase “art on a cart” has been used by teachers because there is no dedicated art room for a specialist to teach in.

“If you think of the concept of art, think lots of paint, dust and bits of materials,” he said.

But in regard to teacher preparation, elementary teachers who prep in their rooms won’t have that option if there is an art class being conducted, Zahn said.

The teachers’ union did not foresee or even guess that the district might implement this schedule when the union and district started their negotiations last August, Zahn said.

In the Memorandum of Understanding from the bargaining agreement, a joint committee, facilitated by the assistant superintendent, comprised of a teacher representative from each elementary building and the elementary principal, was formed to identify, evaluate, consider and recommend changes that meet the planning time requirement of at least 270 minutes per week for teachers.

The association agreed to the elementary planning time last year thinking that the state would pass a law mandating 150 minutes of PE. Then, in mid-September, they discovered the PE time would not be mandatory, Zahn said.

By that point, however, the union had already selected three PE teachers to be on the committee, Zahn said.

“We knew something would change and we were prepared to change,” he said. “We thought we were going to be working on that change together. But we found out we were not going to be involved at all and that destroys trust. You don’t feel respected when this kind of operation goes on.”

Zahn said he is still speaking at School Board meetings regarding the schedule because he believes there is middle ground to be found.

“I’m receiving the information very clearly from the school district that there’s no middle ground,” he said. “They’re going to do what they’re going to do. But, I also hold in the cards that I have a contract to negotiate this summer and that could be part of it.”

Zahn said that he is optimistic that contract negotiations can begin in mid- to late May and be completed by the end of the current school year.

Washougal School District parents shared excitement and worries about the new schedule on social media, after district leaders posted the changes on the Washougal School District’s Facebook site.

Eight parents said they liked the new schedule.

“In an age when schools are eliminating art, music and P.E., we are going to have even more time for these subjects? This mom is so pleased. Good job WSD!” read one comment.

A few of the parents who didn’t support the schedule brought up issues surrounding students having less time to play outside after school, the allowance for more absences to accommodate health appointments and parents having less time with their children.