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Science class size reaches a boil

Five'€™s a crowd — Oak Ridge chemistry students, left to right, Zack Brown, 16; Cody Uhorriet, 17; Eron Baxter, 17; Ryan Fuller, 17, and Elissa Algaba, 15, create hydrocarbonic acid by burning wood chips during Mrs. Power's third period chemistry class. Students confirm that five at a table feels crowded, but didn't report any perceeved danger. Village Life photo by Mike Roberts
Five'€™s a crowd — Oak Ridge chemistry students, left to right, Zack Brown, 16; Cody Uhorriet, 17; Eron Baxter, 17; Ryan Fuller, 17, and Elissa Algaba, 15, create hydrocarbonic acid by burning wood chips during Mrs. Power's third period chemistry class. Students confirm that five at a table feels crowded, but didn't report any perceeved danger. Village Life photo by Mike Roberts

Oak Ridge High School environmental science teacher Stan Iverson alleges that putting five students at a lab table designed for four constitutes an unacceptable risk in lab classes that use potentially dangerous materials.

He points to the 2010-13 teachers’ union contract that bumped maximum science class sizes from 30 to 32 students, and to the fact that students are seated at eight tables, designed to hold four students each. The district has added up to three extra students per Oak Ridge science class since 2010.

Iverson claims that the contract provision that allows the extra three students was intended to apply only at the beginning of the semester, until class sizes level out.

Oak Ridge Principal Steve Wehr put the extra kids in those science classes and disagrees with Iverson, pointing out that no such specific verbiage limiting the duration of the extra students exists in the contract, that there’s no evidence the practice is unsafe and enforcing the 32 student limit would deprive students of important classes.

“I’ve spent time in every one of these science classes and if I had any indication, or any data that indicated those students were unsafe, then I’d say we should talk about it,” said Wehr. “But the data doesn’t indicate that at all …. The fact is we had fewer accidents the year we implemented the 10 percent than the year before.”

With backing from his union, Iverson filed a complaint and then a grievance against Wehr and the district, both of which were denied. Per the teachers’ contract, the matter went to non-binding arbitration, which Iverson contends the district tried to scuttle repeatedly, eventually delaying past the start of school in the fall, thus allowing the district to once again put the extra students in science lab classes.

Much of the argument from both sides focuses on the verbiage of the union contract and the administration’s handling of the complaint — whether committees should have been formed to investigate the grievance and whose responsibility it was to convene them — rather than examining how a fifth student at the workstation might create an unacceptable risk.

In November 2011 arbitrator Katherine Thomson ruled in the teachers’ favor, interpreting the entirety of the contract verbiage as intending the class-size increase to be temporary, not semester-long, despite not saying so very concisely or indicating a date at which the extra students were no longer allowed.

The ruling consists of several pages of dense labor contract legalese. It cites evidentiary case-building flaws by both the teachers and the administrators, with ample failures “to call for determination,” “establish past practices” and “demonstrate awareness” of various aspects of the case.

The ruling did not constitute a victory for the teachers, however, as the arbitrator’s ruling is non-binding, leaving the final decision to the El Dorado Union High School District Board of Trustees.

In a packed Feb. 28 board meeting the trustees heard the 26-year Oak Ridge veteran and former CSUS Environmental Science Teacher of the Year Iverson, along with several other teachers, ask them to accept the arbitrator’s decision and disallow the extra three students beyond the routine schedule-shuffle that occurs during the first few weeks of each semester.

Iverson accused the administration of knowingly putting his students at risk, reminding the board that the labs involve “sharp instruments, heavy objects and poisonous materials.”

He said the administration was willing to accept the risk but he wasn’t, calling it a “risk that’s too risky.”

The overcrowded work tables impact up to half of the class, he said, limiting access to curriculum and inhibiting learning. Iverson cited past examples of student injuries in science classes across the four schools in the district, including numerous burns and cuts.

“The district has stated several times during our meetings that they are willing to except the risk of injury when increasing the student enrollment above the number of work stations,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “Science teachers do not agree with this assessment. The safety of our students is being compromised and we feel that our communities should know these facts.”

Wehr weighs in
Oak Ridge Principal Steve Wehr framed the argument as providing as many classes to as many students as possible in a district with strong academics, stable enrollments and declining revenues.

“Decisions on how to run a school should be made on data, not emotions,” he said. “The accident reports don’t indicate any increased risk from putting 35 students in a class designed for 32.”

He pointed out that the other three high schools in the district (El Dorado, Ponderosa, Union Mine) have put five students at a lab table for some time. Accident reports filed by teachers don’t back up Iverson’s claim that the practice is dangerous, he said.

District Superintendent Chris Hoffman, reached by phone late Friday, backed up Wehr’s statements, adding that that none of the schools in his district have ever put more than 35 students in a class designed for 32.

“It’s not the goal of the district to use the extra 10 percent,” said Wehr. “It just gives us some reasonable flexibility when the number of students who sign up for a class exceeds the number of spots in the class by three or fewer.”

He cites the example of Oak Ridge’s two physics classes, totaling 64 seats. “Right now, I have 68 students who want to take physics next year.”

Adding a third physics class would result in three undersized classes of 23 students, he said, but in the unforgiving budgetary math of school course offerings would require he cut a class elsewhere.

“So I have to decide if I want to drop one section of a non-lab class like math or English, and run the remaining sections at 38 or 40 kids, which isn’t fair to them,” he said.

If he puts all 68 students into the two physics classes, will some students drop out or move?

“Possibly, but historically these upper-end classes have very little movement,” he said. “Those students are resume building. They’re there because they want to be there.”

In Wehr’s reading of the contract, “This is the intent of the 10 percent.”

“It’s not ideal, but it’s better then denying kids classes,” he said.

In Mrs. Power’s Oak Ridge chemistry class student Ryan Fuller, 17, stopped short of calling five at a table dangerous, but said it definitely felt crowded. “During labs there’s not enough room even for four people.”

Corbin Gomez, 17, attended the board meeting as part of Mrs. Brown’s senior government class, and said the science lab tables are uncomfortably tight. He said he didn’t feel endangered by the tight quarters, but that putting four or five students on one table makes it difficult to prevent cheating.

“We have 1,500-1,800 kids in science classes on this campus, depending on the year. We could have hundreds, or thousands of accidents, but we don’t,” Wehr added. “You can count the accidents on one hand, and they weren’t caused by over crowding.”

The matter remains undecided. Hoffman said he expects it to be agenized in the next few months, at which point the board will have to accept or reject the arbitrator’s decision. He stopped short of predicting how either outcome would affect district policy.

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Posted by on Mar 5 2012.
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