Economy’s Potential to Rob Students’ Future

By Jaimie Goldstein

It’s 2:30 p.m. in Mr. Connelly’s Green Class. Today is exciting because Mr. Leighter, the science teacher, has invited the Green Class to an informal debate about trash. Connelly, as the students call him, says Leighter has accused the Green Class of being selfish and lazy. The eager seventh graders are enthusiastic to retaliate and explain their ideas about putting compost containers in every classroom. To restructure the cafeteria and transform every trashcan into a compost container would be hard work, but Connelly encourages it. The project involves money, and Steve Connelly supports this worthy cause. He encourages the students to engage in ideas that will further their minds, because, he says, every student thinks she or he can change the world.

Financial cuts affect students directly

Spencer Butte Middle School is located in Southeast Eugene and is the eleventh richest school in the 4j school district. The school received a ranking of how green it is. This year it is at Merit Level and next year it will move up to a Premiere School. The school had budget cuts the last couple of years, such as standard supply cuts, staff and administration reduction, and central office restructuring. But this deficit can only go so far before it starts affecting students. Although the students of the Green Class consider educating people with awareness of their cause as part of their mission, they would prefer to help the environment first hand. The school budget fails to include their supply costs of rakes and hoes.

District Communications Coordinator Kerry Delf says numerous proposals have been projected to prevent students from noticing the damaging effects of the economy. But somehow they reach the children. Athletes stay closer to home and more fundraising helps a little. Uniforms for athletes are “used year after year after year,” says Mary Beth Pattyn, registrar for Spencer Butte. There’s no extra cost when the students reuse uniforms and buy their own instruments. High student-teacher ratios stifle the flexibility of teachers, which allows the schools to offer elective classes. Delf says a colleague’s son arrives early to class everyday to avoid sitting on a radiator because the number of students outnumbers the chairs in the classroom.

The school system has put off the math textbook and curriculum adoption it desperately needs. Teachers are at loss for math curriculum for the students, who must meet state standards. Updates in the mathematic curriculum are postponed because of budget cuts and because it costs up to $1.5 million. Delf calls it an “existing issue.” Pattyn says the math adoption is on a “district level” but an adoption plan is in the works.

School funding is not stable. Twelve million dollars in reserves, money that has been saved up over the years, can only be used once, and this money is disappearing slowly as it is calculated into next year’s proposal.

How much do the kids know?

Linda Vargas, the assistant principal at Spencer Butte, says the middle school did fairly well in the budget cuts, receiving more financing than last year. Donations always help, such as the community service direct donations from parents.  But they’ve found ways around the cuts, Vargas says. Although Vargas does not deal directly with the budget like the principal does, she understands it. The kids seem to be hit more on a “home level,” says Vargas. She and her peers don’t know how much the students understand about the economy, but it’s not a closed conversation. “It’s not a daily basis [conversation],” she says.

Kenzie Gauthier, a volunteer mentor and tutor at Roosevelt Middle School, works with unmotivated students. Roosevelt—located outside the Southeast Eugene neighborhood—has three teachers to one classroom including Gauthier. Not all schools in the 4j school district had budget cuts control them; a third of a normal class has one teacher. Only in middle school, the students are still “financially aware” of the economy and understand its issues, she says. Gauthier helps “at-risk” students with math, history, and writing and understands that not all children are as financially privileged as others. Some kids have an unstable family life, which reflects their motivation at school and only adds distraction, according to Gauthier.

Back in Connelly’s class, the discussions of how to improve the school and how to accomplish every goal the students imagine, rages on. At 2:55 p.m. Connelly rushes the students outside. He designates half the class to gather cardboard and the other half to rake leaves into the compost piles. The Green Class creates giant compost piles outside of the school to make their small mark on the world.  The students fall into the usual behavior that middle schoolers have: half the class works, while the other half stands around thinking of excuses not to work. But they are all friends. One student even reminds Connelly of the time, suggesting they put the rakes and hoes away and march on to Leighter’s room.

Skills for the future

The specialist teachers, such as physical education and music, have been cut too. Delf points out how the removal of P.E. classes is not the smartest option in this obese country. Steve Leighter mentions some classes have been cut since 1980, and they never return. For example, Leighter says he knows guys like to work with their hands, it’s a growing process. With budget cuts eliminating hands-on classes such as wood shop, vital development is lost he says. In this sense, students fail to develop life-essential skills. The individualized attention that students do not receive is also an effect of the economy. Leighter says the students have a lot going on.

The Green Class and the Green Club, both orchestrated by Connelly, are self-sustaining. The students create merchandise and receive donations and grants, and they also earn money from the students’ participation in car washes. Connelly is wearing one T-shirt made for the Green Club that says “Resistance is Growing.” At least four or five kids a day wear the shirt Connelly says. The class is applied anthropology, which is an elective; this class demonstrates lifelong skills beneficial for students outside of the classroom.  Connelly also teaches history, but he realizes the importance of the Green Class and the Green Club and hopes it can stay within the school’s budget.

The city council member elected for South Eugene, Betty Taylor, has made little familiarity with the economy and its effects on schools. She says, “People are glad to have their jobs.” Taylor used to be a teacher herself and says she understands the devastating effects that budget cuts can have on schools. Families move in with relatives and the importance of small classes gets ignored.

By 3:05 p.m., the chatty Green Class students are standing along the back wall of Leighter’s science classroom ready to respectably refute the selfish and lazy claim. Leighter says that the Green Class should be setting an example every time they wear their shirts—he points to the Green Club shirt Connelly is wearing.  Leighter says he doesn’t see the role models that the Green Class proclaims to be. The trashed hallways need a cleaning; the wasted food in the cafeteria needs to be thrown away.  The Green Class has ideas to help maintain a clean building, so they are not selfish, or lazy.  The small budget simply cannot manage compost containers.  And when no budget exists, no students can change the world.

Spencer Butte Middle School Statistics:

Students: 409

Teachers: 28

School District: 4j

Wealth: 11th in 4j

Average GPA: 3.5+

Extra Curricular Activities: Track and Field, Wrestling, Radio Club, Radio Station KRVM, Bike Club,  Snow Club, Book Club,  Year Book Club, Japanese Club, Chinese Club, Drama Club, Choir, Jazz Band

Athletics: Through Kids Sports and on campus, but not through 4j, Basketball, Baseball, Softball

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