Concerns raised over schedule changes, lack of course offerings at PHS

Teachers, students plead with School Committee

By Kristen Ray
Posted 12/11/19

PORTSMOUTH — Town Hall was once again packed during Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, as parents, teachers and students voiced their concerns about the lack of course offerings and …

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Concerns raised over schedule changes, lack of course offerings at PHS

Teachers, students plead with School Committee

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Town Hall was once again packed during Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, as parents, teachers and students voiced their concerns about the lack of course offerings and potential schedule changes at Portsmouth High School. 

The conversation began about three months ago, when the School Improvement Team (SIT) began investigating the challenges of the current class schedule. 

At present, only 22 percent of PHS students are meeting the 990 total required hours of instruction per year — or roughly 330 minutes per day. To bridge that gap, a possible change to a “waterfall” schedule was originally proposed, but results from a survey sent out by the SIT indicated the overwhelming majority of students, parents and teachers preferred the current block schedule. 

According to SIT parent representative Lisa Janssen, the recommendation is now to provide 7.5 to 8 credits through the existing schedule while also reassessing the learning center component as well. 

“We’re looking at both pieces,” she said. 

That suggestion, however, still rang an alarm for a number of people in the learning community. 

Joe Cassady, speaking on behalf of his fellow teachers, said he was concerned that for all the conversation surrounding adding more credits, there was yet to be any discussion about hiring additional teachers. 

As a result, he feared the additional workload would fall on the laps of him and his colleagues; not only would that be detrimental for the students, he said, but it was an unreasonable expectation of the teachers who — while currently working without a contract — are already putting in the extra hours. 

“Right now, we’re hitting a boiling point, and what’s being asked I don’t think is fair,” Mr. Cassady said. “But I know it’s being asked.”

The way parent representative Alyson Adkins saw it, students were already struggling to take the classes they truly wanted, for a variety of reasons. 

Since the 2014/15 school year, she said, a total of 33 classes have been dropped from the curriculum — including creative writing, corporate business and a slew of foreign language courses — despite the number of students largely staying the same. 

Not only were their options slimmer, but the opportunities to even get into certain subjects were, too. Some popular courses, such as photography and child development, were granted only one section, forcing a number of students to take classes that failed to match their interests. 

“I could be here all night giving you examples,” Ms. Adkins said.  

While the Career and Tech Education specialty programs provide opportunities in the trade and life skills tracts, such as culinary, engineering and video production, senior Fiona Dooley said they prevented the general population from getting to experience those courses. 

“It seems as though the offering is, either you become a master chef or you’re not allowed in the kitchen,” she said. 

Yet Superintendent Ana Riley maintained her belief that the best way to get to 990 hours — while also better engaging students — would be through more electives, not learning centers. 

“Learning centers are not being used the way that they should be,” she said.

Superintendent not ‘the bad guy’

As for students not getting into the courses they wanted, School Committee Chairwoman Emily Copeland shared that 96 percent of student class requests were still satisfied for the current school year — up 1 percent from last. 

Low enrollment was often to blame for classes no longer offered, she said, while others, such as one on renewable energy, were available every other year. And while she said committee members are listening to all of these concerns, it’s also their job to ensure that Ms. Riley ultimately meets those state-required hours of instruction. 

“I don’t want you to think it’s the superintendent being the bad guy here,” Ms. Copeland said.

While the SIT’s recommendation will next go to PHS Principal Joseph Amaral to review, film instructor Gary Vaspol encouraged once again that the district “take a thoughtful pause” before implementing any changes. 

“This decision is too crucial, too critical to make in such a short time frame,” he said.

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