District’s planned initiatives have Dougherty teachers uncertain about their future

Sraavya Sambara, Editor-in-Chief

This past October, Superintendent Rick Schmitt proposed a number of initiatives to be implemented at secondary schools in the district, designed to increase student, staff and family options, improve student wellness and reduce class size with no increase in general fund expense.  However, the underlying implications of these initiatives have Dougherty teachers perturbed and wary about what is in store for their jobs and the school.

One initiative that has garnered much criticism from teachers is the proposed removal of World Geography and Health classes as graduation requirements.

Mr. Roberto Clemente, a DVHS World Geography teacher for seven years and a key advocate for keeping these classes, argued that “[taking away World Geography] is a big mistake based on cultural problems at SRVUSD schools.”

The debate surrounding this issue is now more relevant than ever, with the increasing amount of racial incidents plaguing SRVUSD schools. Over the last year, there have been six separate incidents of racist graffiti at three high schools in the district. This May, an Associated Student Body election campaign video at San Ramon Valley High School stereotyped Middle Eastern people as terrorists, a controversial event that made local and national headlines.  In light of these events, teachers at Dougherty almost unanimously agree that World Geography must be retained because it’s the only class at Dougherty that teaches students about different cultures and religions and promotes cross-cultural communication.

Mr. Jeffrey Vangene, a DV history teacher, asserted, “World Geography is a devastating class to take away… Getting rid of that at this time, with what’s going on in the broader scope of not only our district but our nation, is not a good thing.”

On the plan to take away Health, AP Psychology teacher Mr. Thomas Chamberlain, who has seven years of Health teaching experience under his belt, stated at the Nov. 14 SRVUSD board meeting, “When we talk about stress and how we want to reduce it for our students, I don’t think we want to take away the one class that identifies for these students ‘Hey, this is what stress is. Here [are] healthy ways you can actually deal with it.’”

Health, a class which teaches students about pertinent topics such as how to maintain an emotional balance, managing stress, family planning, and drug use, is one of the only classes at Dougherty which adequately prepares students for managing their physical and emotional well-being in the real world. It also creates a safe environment in which students can converse openly with their classmates and teachers about personal issues.

“Due to sensitive topics that we discuss in ninth grade, Health teachers are often the first contact for many teenagers at a wrongful and emotional time in their lives … I’ve had numerous emails and I’ve had numerous occasions following class where the students are concerned about a particular topic that was discussed. They are either worried about themselves, a friend or family members,” said Mrs. Julie Arotzarena, a former Dougherty Health teacher and current teacher at San Ramon Valley High School, at the Nov. 14 district board meeting.

Another major concern regarding this initiative is the potential laying off of teachers. Although it was initially said by Schmitt that there will be no teacher layoffs, some teachers are concerned about how plausible that is. Because the initiatives will eliminate some classes, at the least Health and World Geography, teachers may have to move to different schools during the day in order to teach their five periods. If this occurs, teachers are unsure about what would happen to teachers already teaching those classes at the other schools.

Because of the contract tenured teachers — teachers who have been teaching for more than two years in SRVUSD — sign with the district, they are guaranteed a job in SRVUSD, though not necessarily a job at the school they currently teach at. If Health and World Geography become optional, sections of those classes would likely be eliminated and tenured teachers of those classes would have to pick up new sections of other courses to remain full time teachers. As a result, they could take additional sections from teachers that have lower seniority. If a teacher, who was displaced from a section, has tenure then the process repeats itself, until an untenured teacher ultimately does not have any sections left to teach and no longer has a job in the school district.

Ms. Rebecca Uscian, a second year English teacher at Dougherty, expressed, “I’m not tenured. I’ll be one of the first ones to leave. I [might] not have a job next year.”

Additionally, if the World Geography and Health classes do end up being cut, World Geography and Health teachers with more seniority might be able to teach certain elective classes, but in that case, the teachers currently teaching those electives may not have anywhere to go. While World Geography teachers could take on additional history sections, teachers with a Health-specific credential would have to take over sections from teachers that are currently teaching courses that don’t require a specific credential, notably elective courses such as Yearbook, Leadership and Academic Leadership.

The elimination of these classes may potentially force teachers to split their day and shuttle between different schools to teach classes to maintain their five-period teaching day, adding unnecessary stress to their already hectic jobs. Mrs. Megan Fortayon, a Special Education teacher, explained that having to commute between schools to teach would create an extremely difficult work environment, especially since all 4 high schools operate on different bell schedules. She goes on to argue that because of the different bell schedules and distance between the schools, having to shuttle would mean that the teachers would oftentimes not be able to teach the entire class period. This would, in turn, affect the students, who would have to be taught by a substitute teacher, and the other teachers at the school, who would lose prep time to cover for those teachers. Mrs. Stacie Yaeger, a Dougherty Special Education teacher,  added that although tenured teachers won’t lose their jobs, they will have more stress added to their jobs, which would ultimately affect students.

In regards to the initiative that proposes to allow students to take foreign language classes outside of school, through Heritage Schools, staff members of the foreign language department worry that the rigor of these classes may be inconsistent and could also lead a loss in sections of foreign language in schools as more students take foreign language classes outside of school, leading to more potential job loss for foreign language teachers.

Additionally, many foreign language teachers have concerns about the initiative that allows students to start taking a foreign language in sixth grade, finishing level 2 of that language in eighth grade.

“I speak English with an accent. Because I learned since my seventh grade. So when I heard that our schools are going to start world language from sixth grade I was overjoyed. I thought my students would have a better chance than I did to master the language,” said Mrs. Jennifer Shuen, a DV Chinese teacher, at the Nov. 14 district board meeting. “But I cannot support the idea of finishing [a level 2 foreign language class] in one year in eighth grade. It will be very stressful for our students and our teachers. Because even in 9th grade we can barely finish the curriculum, so how can we expect to finish it in eighth grade with less instructional time?”

One of the most significant concerns that stresses teachers about the proposals is that these initiatives may be proceeding too quickly. Many feel that the initiatives would benefit from more time and deliberation.

I worry that we’re just kind of really forcing this to move faster than it needs to. I think the timeline right now to me feels very arbitrary,” Knapp questioned.

Yaeger also agreed that the initiatives need to be thought out more, adding that the teacher’s union will definitely be involved if these initiatives will actually be implemented for the 2018-2019 school year.

“We got an email with all the proposed plans before feedback [by staff] was even asked [for],” Mrs. Kelsey Wengel explained. “[The] Superintendent did talk to us, but it wasn’t [framed as] a ‘proposal’. It was like he was saying ‘we are going to do this’.”

Many teachers have also expressed concern about passing the bulk of the initiatives at once. Proposals targeting reducing class sizes — and by association, student stress — include opening course options to DVC and online courses and the elimination of the seven period day. Chamberlain suggested that by putting forth the initiatives one by one, problems, such as commute issues, could be addressed easier, and one initiative could eliminate the need for another. For example, opening up options to get credit for courses outside of school could naturally reduce class sizes on campus, and perhaps a seven period day could be kept.

While the consequences of the proposed district changes cast a shadow on the future of  Dougherty campus, the uncertainty of the situation provides an opportunity to speak out about the issues that arise with the proposals. Doors have been opened in finding alternate solutions to the problems that Schmitt cites as major factors in constructing the ten initiatives, notably, student stress.

“[We need to modify] the way we are looking at student stress, and handling student stress. Students are going to be stressed regardless,” explained Ms. Santos. “[But] we should teach them how to cope with stress. How do you make these decisions for yourself, as opposed to somebody [making that decision for you]?”

The community has responded to these initiatives with ardor, which is apparent in the significant turnouts seen at the district board meetings. Teacher and community input has had an effect on the initial proposals presented in October, encouraging the development of these initiatives so as to make them more considerate of all parties affected.

AP Economics teacher Mr. Daniel Farmer acknowledged that “the main issues that most teachers and union members have are that [the initiatives were] discussed without a lot of input from a lot of stakeholders: teachers, students, parents. But as these stakeholders have increasingly had a voice in it, the PLI’s have been altered and changed throughout [the process].”

As awareness is raised about these initiatives and the various controversies surrounding them students, parents and staff can continue to speak out against or in support of these initiatives by writing emails and letters to district board members and speaking at school board meetings.

The San Ramon Valley Education Association (SRVEA) has emphasized the benefits of community input: “Trustees are asking for open minded dialogue and allow the process to take place. Several of the ideas have already evolved and will continue to do so. Regardless of what side of the debate you are on, there is need for conversation and it needs to be civil.”