Over the last week, teachers and students at Portsmouth High School began to hear that many elective courses were being eliminated next year (unless I've missed an e-mail, parents have yet to be officially informed; as of today, the courses were still listed in the PHS Program of Studies for 2016-17.)
At last night's school committee meeting, three students, a teacher, and one parent made the case for a robust selection of electives during the open comment period, but were advised that because the item was not on the agenda, the committee could not respond.
The students who spoke last night were eloquent about the importance of these and other elective courses, noting that they are required for STEAM certificates as well as preparation for the 21st-century jobs and college classwork they plan for their time after PHS.
Among the courses mentioned for elimination at last night's session were the entire theater curriculum, creative writing, Piano 2, and science fiction literature.
In an e-mail exchange yesterday, a school official confirmed that some of these courses would be cut. "Our budget for the high school next year shows a reduction of 5.0 teachers. As such, we have to make some adjustments in how we use our resources. We no longer can sustain running electives with low enrollment every year. Therefore, some but not all of the courses you mention above will not run next year."
Another source with knowledge of the process presented a slightly different picture, saying that, "If 15 or more kids enroll in these classes for next year they will be run."
In an article in the online Portsmouth Times, officials indicated that the goal was to offer the classes less frequently in order to fill them when they run. "For me, having 15 students instead of seven will enrich the quality of the class," Superintendent Ana Riley was quoted as saying.
Given the conflicting information, this afternoon, I filed a request for an agenda item for the next meeting, June 14, with Supt. Riley. I asked for an agenda item to "Explain PHS elective policy, discuss options, and make recommendations." This would give the school committee broad latitude to present information, hear feedback and interact with concerned parents and students, and potentially make recommendations for steps to mitigate issues.
As backup, I have requested that the District provide enrollment data for all electives from this past year, a list of which electives slated to run in 2016-17, and a list of staff reductions at PHS from 2010-2017.
My ingoing hypothesis is that we have been bleeding the slack out of the system with multiple years of limited budgets (last year's increase was 1.4%; the upcoming budget sees only a 2.4% increase.) With the District only down 52 students across the whole PK-12 range, it doesn't seem like a staff reduction of 5 positions at the high school is justified (although, to my mind, it does offer a possible explanation of why capacity for running electives might be limited.)
Parents of PHS students — and 8th graders — may want to attend the school committee meeting on June 14.