Kaiser sixth-graders losing science time

For Nathan Peters, a Kaiser Elementary School sixth-grader, science is more than just a class he attends each day.

The specialized curriculum at his school provides him the opportunity to do things like build a solar oven and cook hot dogs and s'mores with his friends.

"I really want that experience to happen," he said to trustees during a recent school board meeting. "I want to save our school science."

While Kaiser students still learn science, they have lost instructional time.

For years, Kaiser sixth-graders have received 90 minutes of science instruction a week, including 30 minutes of an "enrichment program," which supplements the school district's core science curriculum to provide students with a deeper understanding of the subject.

In an effort to equalize the science teachers' workload across the district at the behest of the union, science specialist Phil Schinhofen has been prohibited from teaching as usual the sixth-grade enrichment program this year. Parents and students voiced their concerns about the elimination of the extra instructional time during a Newport-Mesa Unified board meeting last week.

Kaiser is the only elementary school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District that has a science enrichment program.

"This is not the time to reduce science instruction," Schinhofen said. "This is the age when you hook students and get them interested in science."

The alteration to Kaiser's program comes as Newport-Mesa teachers begin preparing for the Next Generation Science Standards, which much like Common Core will increase the rigor and depth of science curriculum districtwide, proponents say. 

The reason the enrichment program exists is because it is funded by the Kaiser Woodland Schools Foundation, begun by local parents.

But the financial help can become complicated. A teacher funded by the foundation can only teach the enrichment program and is prohibited by district policy from teaching the core curriculum.

However, if the district funds the teacher, he or she can teach both.


Labor issues make waves

This year, the district expanded its science curriculum to begin at the third-grade level. At the same time, the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers requested that the district equalize science specialists schedules because some educators were teaching more classes and students than others. Both factors contributed to the alteration of the science enrichment program at Kaiser Elementary, said district spokeswoman Laura Boss.

"This came about when a commitment was made by the district to have all elementary school science specialists teach the same number of sections and approximately the same number of students," Boss said.

This led to Schinhofen, who taught the entire 90 minutes of science curriculum including the enrichment program in previous years, being given the added task of teaching third-graders.

Emily Foster, the foundation-funded science teacher at Kaiser, taught third-grade science last year as an enrichment program, but because of district policy, she cannot continue to teach the class now that it is part of the core curriculum for the district.

"This increased core program schedule has inadvertently restricted [Schinhofen's] availability to teach any enrichment sections since the core courses fill his schedule," Boss said.

Core curriculum for Newport-Mesa includes 30 minutes of science instruction for the third grade, 60 minutes for fourth grade, 90 minutes for fifth grade and 60 minutes for sixth grade per week.

"It's a waste of resources," said Nathan's father, Andy Peters, the foundation's chairman. "The resources are still available, but the district has mandated that we can't use them in the way they have always been used."

Kaiser's enriched science program has prepared students for more rigorous curriculum in higher grades, Newport Harbor High School science teacher John Brazelton said during a parent meeting at Kaiser Tuesday afternoon.

"The kids that are best prepared for science and are pumped to learn science are the ones that come from Kaiser and Woodland," he said.


Solving the Puzzle

Principal Deborah Granger announced during the parent meeting that in an effort to give the Kaiser students the 90 minutes they are used to, an additional 30 minutes would be allotted before the school day begins.

Granger likened organizing the school's master plan for instructional time to a complicated puzzle.

"If any of you are good at puzzles, I encourage you to help me," she joked with parents.

Students who opt into the before-school program would attend the enriched science class at 7:45 a.m. on the day of their parent's choosing for 30 minutes.

This is a typical solution used by schools when there aren't enough minutes in the teacher's schedule for enrichment programs, Boss said.

"In an effort to demonstrate support for the foundation's goals, the district has offered to fund the before-school program for the 2013-14 school year," Boss said.

However, parents at the meeting, which was also attended by board President Karen Yelsey and Supt. Fred Navarro, were not satisfied. The parents expressed concerns about the early start time and the fact that the children's science instruction would be fractured.

The 30 or so attendees pushed Navarro to come up with an alternative. After more than an hour of discussion, Brazelton suggested that the district approach the faculty union to discuss the issue and perhaps come to a compromise for the year.

Navarro agreed to direct staff to take those steps.

Kimberly Claytor, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, could not be reached for comment.


Next Generation Science Standards

The alteration of the sixth-grade science enrichment program at Kaiser comes as the district begins to plan the way it will implement the new science standards, which are similar to Common Core standards in math and language arts.

Elementary Science Specialists, which are groups of teachers working at the district, are beginning to develop curricula for the next generation of standards, Boss said.

While the course work is far from complete, the district said the focus of the hands-on science lab experience will be in engineering, teaching students activities like building an alarm and designing water filters and solar houses.

Third- and fourth-grade units will be implemented next year, with fifth and sixth grade following the year after next.

Parent Jeanne Anne Singley has third- and sixth-graders at Kaiser. The program has fostered a love of science in both of her children, she said.

Additional time for science is a step in the right direction, as the district begins to implement its new curriculum, she said.

"By taking that 30 minutes away, students are missing out on a lot of quality instructional time," she said. "It's going against [the next generation science standards]."

[For the record, 4:26 p.m. Jan. 14: To clarify an earlier version of this story, the district expanded its science curriculum to begin at the third-grade level this school year. The decision to add science to third-grade was not at request of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers. The combination of the union’s request that the district equalize science teacher’s schedules and the addition of third-grade science curriculum contributed to the alteration of Kaiser Elementary’s foundation supported science enrichment program.]

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