Facing Teacher Shortage, Schools Pack Students in Study Halls
Required study halls have become common in large Portland-area high schools as budget-slammed schools find they don't have enough teachers to go around.
But Portland Public Schools, which added required study halls to its seven biggest high schools this year after it cut more than 40 teaching jobs, has taken the money-saving measure to a new level. A campus security guard supervises 90-minute study halls packed with as many as 50 (Lincoln), 70 (Franklin), 135 (Grant) or even 200 (Benson) students in the cafeteria or another big room.
Grant High freshman Adanna Earl said she tries to finish assignments during the hour and a half she and dozens of other students spend in the cafeteria every afternoon, but "it's hard. There are a lot of kids, and it's loud."
Students and principals say study halls have their pluses, primarily giving students a chance to complete homework or study while keeping class sizes and teaching loads manageable.
Grant freshman Elizabeth Metias, noting the heavy workload in classes such as world history and geometry, said she prefers her large study hall to an eighth course. "I have seven other classes that I have work in and that I want to do well in," she said.
But schools that don't mandate or even offer study halls—including Tigard, Oregon City, Reynolds and Forest Grove high schools—say students are better off learning from a certified teacher for the entire school day.
Reynolds Principal Jeff Gilbert calls study halls "holding tanks."
"Academically, it doesn't do a lot for students," he said. "It's not the most scintillating, and not a whole lot of studying goes on."
His school no longer allows any student to have a free period, period. Unlike at nearly all other local high schools, all students must take a class every period all four years—even seniors who could take a lighter load and still have enough credits to graduate.
"Before, kids were allowed to have a free period, and we would have significant numbers of young people who would sit in one of our big lunch rooms with a security guard, just hang out, maybe doing some homework," Gilbert said. "We eliminated that, and it's been great."
The number of schools that allow students to take eight classes, however, has been whittled back—mainly for financial rather than academic reasons.
Reynolds and Forest Grove both cut back teacher planning time and decreased their schedule from eight periods to seven. Westview, Sunset, Clackamas, Gresham, Barlow and all the large Portland high schools limit students to seven classes in an eight-period schedule. Lake Oswego High encourages students, particularly freshmen, to take a study hall, although students still can opt for an eighth course.
The number will drop further next year when Beaverton switches all five of its big high schools to an eight-period day with a mandatory study hall period for underclassmen and a seven-class limit.
"I don't think schools now can fund" enough teachers to let students take eight courses with reasonable class sizes, said Vicki Lukich, Beaverton's executive administrator for high schools.
Two main pressures drive schools to leave empty slots in student schedules: the need to offer teachers enough planning time and the inability to afford as many teachers as in the past. The double-whammy of the recession and the end of federal stimulus money means Oregon schools now have less in inflation-adjusted money per student than in the previous five years.
Still, high schools that feature a seven-period schedule or three trimesters with five classes each do not require students to have an empty period; only schools with eight periods do.
And nearly all schools that do offer study halls put certified teachers in charge. Portland, Gresham-Barlow and Lake Oswego do not, opting for a less expensive classified employee.
"It's financial," said Portland Chief Academic Officer Carla Randall of her decision to have security guards supervise study halls. Campus monitors earn $23,400 to $29,500, compared with Portland teacher pay of $36,000 to $72,000.
At Westview High in Beaverton, where students have long been limited to seven classes in an eight-period schedule, the study hall period has evolved from essentially warehousing students to offering them many options to catch up or surge ahead in other classes, said Assistant Principal Cheryl Ashdown. Students can go to tutoring centers, retake tests, meet in study groups or use the computer lab for research.
Ashdown acknowledges that limiting students to seven classes is unpopular with some parents who say their child can easily handle eight classes "and view study hall as a waste of time."
But, she said, "we are saying we want you to do really well in the seven you've got."
In Portland, principals are trying to find ways to make the gigantic study halls better. Upperclassmen can instead serve as peer tutors or teaching assistants. Strict rules, extra adult supervision and requirements for silent reading are helping make the biggest sessions quieter and more conducive to study.
Best of all, they say, Randall says the district is likely to give some high schools an additional teacher allotment by early October to help pull the most academically needy students from the biggest study halls into a smaller class that will help them with time management, writing and study skills. That will also shrink study halls for those who remain.
Until then, students said they are doing their best to hunker down. Most said they prefer to study in front of the TV or while listening to music, so they don't need stone-cold silence to get homework done.
Benson High sophomore Ty'Sha Harrell, who starts every other day in a 200-student study hall in the cafeteria, shared her technique. "You just have to sit with the right people and tune everybody else out."