Language barrier: School district may reduce English classes as part of budget cuts; teachers feel left out of the process

By on May 4, 2016

Some fear savings measure could be detrimental to students

The Warwick School District board room was packed on Tuesday with nearly 40 teachers who expressed their outrage that English language arts classes may be cut in half at the middle school.

Many of the teachers are long-time middle school English teachers, some teaching 20 years or more. At least one teaches family and consumer science. Another is a high school English teacher who is concerned about students being unprepared for the rigors of high school English.

“I fear having students who are not prepared,” said Joan Bohan, noting that the well-prepared students who come to her high school classes benefit from the double periods of English language arts.

One of the reasons many of the teachers were upset by the proposal to reduce the two-period English language arts program was that they were not involved in discussions. They had only heard of the proposal on Monday, a day before the meeting.

The suggestion to reduce the program stemmed from the retirement of two English teachers, one in the high school and one in the middle school. With a budgetary policy to not replace retiring teachers whenever possible, district officials have proposed consolidating courses.

One option is to reduce the two-period English language arts program to one period of English and one period of world language for upper level students. Lower level students would still have two periods of English. There were no details on mid-level students.

Board member Leslie Penkunas immediately questioned the benefit of reducing English language arts for middle school students.

“I would think this would be detrimental,” said Penkunas. “How can we be confident it will be OK?”

Board member Ben Sahd echoed some of her concerns, saying that he wanted to be sure that students continued to have an education of quality and consistency. Students, he said, should always be the priority.

“We need to do what’s right for Warwick, because that’s what makes Warwick great,” he said.

Middle school English teacher Wendy Hoyer spoke on behalf of many of her fellow teachers. She talked about the emotions of anger, sadness and fear that she experienced when she first heard about the proposal. As a 25-year English teacher at the middle school, she has been teaching students for two periods for all of her teaching career.

The students receive comprehensive studies in reading, writing, grammar and communication, which is essential to their future success in high school, college, careers and life. She said that she was deeply concerned about losing the middle school philosophy.

“Middle school students are natural questioners and thinkers,” Hoyer said. “Why would language arts be reduced?”

Eighth grade English teacher Jonathan Olshan called the proposal a drastic measure that would be detrimental to students. As a volunteer member of the scheduling committee, Olshan did not understand why the committee was not involved in discussions, and teachers only heard about the plan a day earlier.

“I find this to be a gross misrepresentation of middle school teachers,” he said. “This is deeply personal to us to not be included.”

The school board had no response.

Another middle school English teacher, Lorrie Schonour, asked the board and education committee members to meet face-to-face before a decision would be made.

The proposal was originally introduced by Assistant Superintendent Robin Felty, Assistant to the Superintendent for Elementary Education and Student Services Melanie Calender, Warwick High School Principal Ryan Axe, and Middle School Principal Michael Smith.

It is part of a district-wide plan to ease the stress on the budget by not filling positions when teachers retire or resign. In some cases, positions are evaluated and determined that they need to be filled. In other cases, teachers are being asked to change grades or classes, switch to other schools or cover more than one school. Music and art are two areas where teachers are teaching in two or more schools and sharing resources.

“What’s most important is that we all work together to make these decisions, and do what’s best for our students,” agricultural science teacher Lisa Hochreiter said.

Laura Knowles is a freelance reporter who covers the Warwick School Board beat for the Record Express. She welcomes reader feedback at lknowles21@gmail.com.

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