Oregon schools have cut back teachers and programs in the wake of state budget reductions. OPB is tracing the effect those cuts are having in a series we're calling "Learning with Less."
We've heard from a principal, two teachers, and a family in Portland. This morning, Rob Manning reports on a family that's getting a lesson as the cuts hit schools in Forest Grove.
Maricela and Jose Garcia live with their two daughters in Cornelius, just east of Forest Grove. The whole family learned something about school finance last spring. 8-year-old Chelsea was in first grade at the time.
"We had a library teacher, and she got laid off, so we don't have a library teacher. And she made reading really fun for me," Chelsea remembers.
"With Chelsea, breaks my heart that they don't get library anymore," Chelsea's mom, Maricela Garcia says. "Chelsea, it was every single week 'Today's library day! I get to see Miss Rosario!' Miss Rosasio was the best, because of Miss Rosario, I think Chelsea has that little reading bug."
Forest Grove eliminated all the library media specialists in elementary school. They were among the 90 positions cut district-wide last spring. That's roughly 15 percent of the district's frontline staff.
Maricela Garcia didn't let those budget cuts pass without a fight. She's a member of the district's Latino Parent Advisory Committee. She rallied families to school board meetings, last spring.
Her 12-year-old daughter Brianna remembers demonstrating with her mom.
"I was really proud of myself because I represented a lot of students at my school. I did think that parents and students could change something – and I still do."
Maricela Garcia says she understands the difficult decisions facing the Forest Grove school board in these tight times.
But her concern about those cuts extends beyond academics. Maricela was worried that the smaller staff in middle school would be less prepared to guarantee a safe school environment for her oldest daughter.
"Oh, aye. What worried me, too, was that we have a history of kids that aren't the best behaved. And scared that my daughter's safety was going to be at risk, because there wasn't going to be enough teachers to go around."
Brianna had heard rumors of gang activity at Neil Armstrong Middle School. She and her mom looked into changing school districts. But the higher costs and the idea of pulling out of the local school didn't sit well.
"My Mom told me that we were going to try out Neil Armstrong to see if I liked the school, and I could handle it," Brianna says.
"To my surprise we have very shiny walls, and Brianna says 'I haven't seen a gangster yet, Mom.' So, very happy," Maricela says.
Maricela Garcia's advocacy didn't end with choosing Brianna’s school. There are fewer elective options now. So Maricela pressed hard for Brianna to get the one she wanted: psychology.
Budget cuts also caused average middle school classe sizes to jump from 25 to almost 29 kids. Briana's big, noisy math class pushed her to look at advancing into algebra.
"Math 7, most kids like didn't care, they didn’t pay attention as much as the kids in algebra. They seemed more interested in all the math. I could focus more in algebra than in Math 7."
"Me and Brianna, we're always scheming – so if we work hard this way, and you tell me how far you can go. She says 'mom, I'm doing it, mom'," Maricela says.
Maricela Garcia says she went to the algebra teacher and showed her that Brianna's scores were just below the minimum for algebra. Maricela remembers that the teacher turned and addressed Brianna.
"'As long as you're a hard worker, and you are committed, you can come into my class'." she remembers the teacher saying. "Thank God. So, every day 'Brianna, how you doing in there, are you ok?' 'Yeah mom.' And I see her do her homework. I'm like 'aye, que bueno.' So, we'll see."
Dad, Jose Garcia, has mixed feelings about his daughter going into advanced classes. He worries she'll have to work too hard. But he says on the other hand, working hard now, may pay off later.
"I worry a little bit about the kids they want to push a little more. But at the same time, it's going to be better, because when they get to the college, or high school, it's going to be easy, I think."
Jose has his own story around education and the economy. He was laid off, but got a higher-skilled job, after taking classes at Portland Community College.
Maricela Garcia plans to keep a close eye on how her daughters are doing this year. But she says the budget cuts in Forest Grove mean parents have to do even more to support teachers. She says parents should tell them this:
"We have your back. We know that us parents have to do much more than just send our kids to school."
Maricela Garcia says she'd like to focus more on her own family, than on parent advocacy this year. But that may prove difficult. She expects to serve on the site council at Neil Armstrong Middle School.
Sources for this story came by way of OPB's Public Insight Network.
Find more of Rob Manning's 'Learning with Less' series on OPB's education page.