OCEAN parents and school district find middle ground

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OCEAN parents and the Port Townsend School District might have found middle ground after contention earlier this month regarding changes to the OCEAN program.

More than 60 parents and community members voiced their concerns at a May 7 virtual school board meeting after cuts to the program were announced at the end of April.

The school board approved a reduction in one half-time teacher, and the district planned to eliminate the high school program by not allowing new students to enroll. The district has now reversed course on both decisions, choosing to re-evaluate teacher-to-student ratios in the fall and allowing new high school students to enroll.

The district initially used enrollment numbers recorded on Feb. 1 to predict enrollment in the fall and chose to reduce staffing in OCEAN and across the district in line with its approved teacher-to-student ratio. OCEAN parents felt the enrollment numbers used to make the decision were not representative of what enrollment might look like in the fall. Many posited that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic might significantly increase enrollment leaving the program short-staffed.

Superintendent John Polm agreed. In his recommendation to the school board May 21, he said the model OCEAN represents might be more desirable to families especially with so much uncertainty regarding what traditional school might look like in the fall. He said there were arguments on both sides to suggest there might be higher or lower enrollment to OCEAN, so waiting to see was the best course of action.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a significant increase in families wanting to go to (OCEAN),” Polm said. “If the enrollment is there, then we will bring the staff back.”

If enrollment was up considerably, he said, they might even need to bring on another full-time teacher, not just replace the part-time position that was cut.

Polm also recommended the district hire a consultant to review the program. He said previously there were concerns about “student outcomes.” He said OCEAN has not been the subject of an outside review since 2011 when it was still called ICE. School board members indicated they were also in favor of a review.

Parents had previously requested they participate in any review process, possibly through a task force. Polm said a review seeking both quantitative and qualitative would have lots of room for parent involvement through interviews and focus groups. Polm also recommended all other alternative programs the district supports be similarly reviewed.

Polm recommended creating a task force after a review so the review finding could inform a committee that might seek to make future changes to the program.

Parents also requested they be involved in the hiring process of a new teacher. Polm noted it is not district policy to allow parent involvement in hiring, as it is a confidential process. He recommended parents be surveyed on what qualities and qualifications they value most in a new teacher.

Board member Jeff Taylor requested any feedback on hiring be done soon, so the district could have that process already completed if it does decide to hire another teacher in August.

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Bridgette Ramsey

This article is missing critical information regarding public comments made by parents at the conclusion of the May 21st School Board meeting. Parents esponded to Superintendent Polm’s revised recommendations. There are some additional clarifications to be made.

The District did not use February’s enrollment data alone to make projections. They used a year to date average at that time. OCEAN’s February enrollment entitled students to their full teaching staff. The District has not “reversed course” on their decision to cut OCEAN’s half time teacher based on our current enrollment as we have asked. They are only agreeing to reconsider the matter in August. This is the same approach they would take for a program with insufficient enrollment at present.

Satisfactory resolutions have not yet been reached.

In regards to a parent involved hiring committee, one parent spoke out about the fact that parents have previously sat on a hiring committee for OCEAN, and that non disclosure agreements were an easy solution for the issues Polm raised.

We unanimously and emphatically told Polm and the Board that a task force involving parents should be created now, not later, and the focus should be on strengthening OCEAN K-12, not simply evaluating it. In addition, OCEAN’s reduction in force should be reversed immediately, not later, because the enrollment IS there, and has been since February. The cut should never have been made in the first place.

How did this happen?

On the April 16th School Board meeting recording, the Financial Director for the Port Townsend School District can be heard going over enrollment data. Everyone present was aware that OCEAN's enrollment had jumped from 59.8 in February to 67.9 in March. Given the student teacher ratio of 28:1 for OCEAN, the enrollment in both February and March entitled students to three teachers - two full time and one half time. Yet that very same night, OCEAN's half time teacher was cut for the following year. Why? The decision was based on an enrollment projection for 2020-2021 made in February; a year to date average at that point. It was used for this reduction in force during that April meeting, without regard for the actual enrollment of that moment. Even adjusting the average to include March would've warranted the preservation of the teacher. The projection was in obvious need of revision, and this was well within the District's ability to do. But they didn't. Since the cut was made, a survey has been conducted by the District that shows enrollment is likely to reach 72.34 this coming Fall.

Still, the District wants to wait until August before beginning the hiring process for a potential teacher. This will reduce the pool of applicants, and cast a wider shadow of uncertainty over an already uniquely challenging year ahead for students.

During the May 21st School Board meeting, it was said that projections were not "usually" changed after February. One can understand why: A school of 400 students will not usually show a significant variation in enrollment throughout the year. Looking at large schools and normal circumstances, February seems a fine choice. But OCEAN is a smaller program, and there was a significant increase in enrollment beginning in February. The projection should have been changed, and the teacher should never have been cut. Now, the District must do what is right. A new projection should be made that gives respect to our current enrollment, and the teacher cut should be reversed immediately to cause the least harm possible to our students.

Wednesday, May 27