When Oregon school districts cut their budgets for this school year, it was generally understood that larger class sizes and fewer elective options would result. But some consequences were less obvious.
OPB's "Learning With Less" series has been tracking a variety of ways that schools are different this year. Rob Manning checks in on two sisters we've been following since September. He reports on how they've responded to a scheduling challenge.
Portland Public Schools shifted its high schools onto a block schedule, where classes are longer, but occur only every other day. That helped the district save money. Part of the cost savings came from dropping an instructional period, and giving students a free period, or study hall.
The open period is unpopular with many high schoolers, including sisters Madison and Sabra Duarte. Madison is a junior and Sabra's a freshman. They're both at Cleveland High.
Sabra was restless right away among the dozens of students and frustrated teachers in Cleveland's cafeteria study hall.
"It gets really loud, and they're all like 'You guys need to be quiet, you guys need to be studying, you guys came here to study.' And we're like 'No, we came here because we were forced to'," Sabra says.
In interviews back in September, their mom, Leslie Dailey, was frustrated, too, but hoped the study hall might eventually prove valuable.
"Neither of them wanted to have study hall, would like to be doing something else with their time. But I guess it is what it is. So, they may – as activities get going – be glad they have it, at some point," Dailey hoped.
As a junior, Madison Duarte has a free period. It's not as restrictive as a study hall, but it still felt like a dead space in the middle of her day.
She's filled it by volunteering in a freshman biology class, as a mentor. She says it wasn't hard to get the teacher to sign off.
"Well, I saw a sign on his door, so I went to talk to him about it. Then he signed the form, and then I turned it in," Madison explains.
Teacher Scott Burns says mentoring in his class isn't for everyone.
"I've always had at least one or two in all of the freshman classes, for at least the past couple of years. I have a reputation here at Cleveland, and I only work with certain students…"
Burns says mentors in his classroom have to break out of their comfort zones to be successful.
"I expect them to not just sit back and shuffle papers and doodle. So they have to work with students, and get in their business, and help them out. So it's challenging for them."
Rob Manning: "How's Madison doing?"
"Great. Yeah, it's been a learning experience for all mentors. They start at the beginning of the year, a little reticent, a little shy. You know, it's difficult to work with peers."
On this day, Madison Duarte and another mentor are helping students use their logbooks to fill out a worksheet.
Male student: "You understand, but I don't."
Female student: "Where did we write about that"
Madison Duarte: "Did you check your table of contents, in your logbook?"
The mentors are helping Burns jog students' memories leading up to the first semester final. Partway through the class, Burns huddles briefly with the mentors to see how the review is going.
Burns: "You guys get the idea, right?"
Burns: "So it's ok, it's working out for them?"
Burns: "Anything that you think we should add for the explanation for the next period that would be better?"
Madison: "I don't think so."
Burns: "No? It's alright? OK. Continue helping them out."
Burns says he's noticed that there are more students available to be mentors, thanks to the free period in the new block schedule. But he says the opportunities are still limited to upperclassmen who are truly interested in the job.
"You have to want to work with students. And if they're going to work in my class, they have to work with students the way that I want them to – which is the mentoring, and the being in their business, and giving suggestions. So, I find there is more interest because of the open period, not to mention, it's a credited class – it's a credit they can earn, if they are successful," Burns says.
Madison Duarte says she's figured out what Mr. Burns wants and she appreciates getting the class credit. And she's happy to have something to do.
"Yeah, it's definitely better than sitting in the cafeteria," Madison says.
This particular class offers Madison an extra benefit. It's her sister Sabra's biology class. During class, Madison doesn't spend any extra time with her sister's group. But Madison will playfully bump into her sister, or sidles up to Sabra at the lab table, when she does visit.
Sabra says she has mentors in several of her classes. But she says it's only in biology where she sees them actively engaging with students.
"Well, they do that a lot in Mr. Burns' class just because of the way he wants his mentors to be, but in other classes, they just sit there," Sabra says.
Speaking of "just sitting there," Sabra still dreads her open period. As a freshman, she doesn't have an alternative to study hall. In spite of her mother's hopes that the extra study time would be welcome later in the school year, Sabra says she and her classmates are bored. Bored silly, even.
"We sit there. And we draw on ourselves with hi-lighters. And we play endless games of tic-tac-toe."
District officials couldn’t provide a count of how many more students have volunteered to be mentors because of the new schedule. But a spokesman says it's a good thing, if more students are taking that opportunity – because mentoring can be a valuable experience.
Sources for this story came to us via our Public Insight Network. Learn how you can become a source and share what you know at opb.org/publicinsight.