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Portland Students Stage Walkout In Support of Teachers

Students and parents are showing their solidarity with Portland teachers as school administrators seek to eliminate limits on class size.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Smart7 via Shutterstock.com

 

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.

"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.

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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."