More than 60 concerned parents, community members and past students attended the virtual Port Townsend School Board meeting May 7 to show their support for OCEAN, the district’s …
More than 60 concerned parents, community members and past students attended the virtual Port Townsend School Board meeting May 7 to show their support for OCEAN, the district’s alternative-education program, as it faces changes to staffing and a review of its effectiveness in the 2020-21 school year.
Many individuals spoke in support of the program, logging into a cluttered Zoom call and weathering technical glitches and hold-ups for their allotted two minutes in the meeting’s public comment portion.
Several parents credited OCEAN with saving their child’s lives by being a supportive alternative to regular classroom learning.
Parents were told April 26 that the district had eliminated one half-time teaching position from the program. The district also attempted to prohibit incoming high school students from enrolling in the program for this coming fall.
The board passed a resolution at its April 16 meeting that eliminated Carol Light’s position as a half-time teacher for OCEAN. The resolution was part of a larger cost-saving plan to reduce the district’s staff by two full-time positions. Positions were also consolidated at Salish Coast Elementary, Blue Heron Middle School and Port Townsend High School.
OCEAN was born from what was originally the Independent Curriculum Education program, or ICE, in the early 1990s. Today OCEAN stands for Opportunity, Community, Experiences, Academics and Navigation. The program focuses largely on arts and experiential learning in multi-age classrooms and is designed to cater to students who might fall through the cracks of mainstream public education.
In addition to feeling as if the cuts cripple the program’s ability to serve its students, parents said they felt they had been unfairly left out of the process with no chance to voice their concerns until a decision had been made. Many allege the district had intentionally kept parents in the dark and said this was another example of a history of the district not supporting the program.
One OCEAN parent, Ethan Walat, characterized it as “opportunism of the worst kind” to make the decision in a virtual meeting during the confusion of the COVID-19 pandemic.
OCEAN parent Zhaleh Almaee said parents were made aware of the staff reduction and the phasing out of the high school program in an April 26 email from OCEAN teacher Daniel Molotsky, 10 days after the changes were approved at a virtual school board meeting.
Superintendent John Polm said in an email to The Leader he had planned to meet with parents before they heard from Molotsky but failed to schedule it.
He said the reduction was based on the district-approved ratio of teachers to full-time students — 28 students to one teacher — and that in February, OCEAN had 55.19 full-time equivalent students, which is used as the projection for the 2020-21 school year. OCEAN also includes many part-time students and has a waiting list of 11 students.
Molotsky’s email to parents also stated current OCEAN high school students would be allowed to graduate, but no more students would be accepted, meaning current OCEAN eighth-graders would need to register next year at Port Townsend High School. Polm said he reversed this decision after hearing from parents.
OCEAN parent Marc Weinblatt said at the May 7 meeting he felt the decision was a catch-22: reducing staff would reduce enrollment, which was setting up the program to fail. He requested the district wait until June to make a decision about staffing when they might have a better picture of what enrollment will look like in the fall.
Weinblatt also said he felt this decision would have larger ramifications for the district’s budget as it would force families to seek alternative schooling somewhere else, decreasing state funding.
Polm said staff reductions across the board were a result of an anticipated decrease in revenue for 2020-21, specifically reductions in levy revenues and increases in “employee-related and other costs.”
“Given the COVID-19 economic impact to the state, it is possible the district will need to make cuts in the future,” Polm said. “The current plan is a conservative approach designed to help ‘feather’ those potential future cuts.”
Polm also noted he will recommend the district review the OCEAN program.
“There is concern about some of the student outcomes,” Polm said. “The district is interested in investigating other alternative programming that might better meet the needs of students who are not successful in OCEAN.”
Parents at the May 7 meeting urged the school to reconsider the staffing changes and bring in a new part-time teacher to replace Light who has accepted a position at Blue Heron Middle School.
Many also said they felt as if the COVID-19 pandemic made alternative education like the OCEAN program even more relevant, and that they felt the school should not move support from OCEAN but instead invest in and expand it.
“The district leadership team is out of step with the spirit of this community when it comes to supporting alternative learning,” OCEAN parent Bridgette Ramsey said. “The district may hope to save the overhead cost of running OCEAN by forcing kids into PTHS or inventing a new program that is less expensive and will be catastrophically inferior, lacking the vision and structure of our thriving program.”