May 11, 2019 — “Our future is in the classroom. Let’s invest in it!” stated one red and white sign Wednesday in front of Siuslaw Elementary School.
As part of the statewide and national Red for Ed program, Siuslaw School District staff wore red on May 8 in support of funding Oregon’s schools to the requested amount of $9.13 billion, instead of the $8.87 billion budget planned for the state’s K-12 system.
Sporting signs reading “Class size counts,” “I stand with students” and “Fully fund Oregon schools,” staff lined up on Oak Street to greet school buses and cars, encouraging people to honk their support. After school, teachers participated in a “grade-in” at Nosh and Abby’s Legendary Pizza, where people were encouraged to talk to them about the district’s financial needs.
The day’s activities were planned by the Siuslaw Education Association.
According to Siuslaw Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak, “Other school districts around Oregon are closing their doors or modifying operations due to teacher walk-outs. Knowing the value of our schools to the Florence community, the members of the Siuslaw Education Association have elected to participate in the ‘Oak Street Morning Greeting’ with educators dressed in symbolic red shirts rather than joining protests at the state capitol.”
Education was at the forefront all week as Florence Community PTA honored teachers and staff during Teacher Appreciation Week. Something fun was planned every day, including snacks, messages of support and themed days, including “You were mint to be appreciated” with breath mints and “You’re soup-er” with a prepared lunch.
On Thursday, students and PTA members wrote messages of appreciation in each of the staff parking lots.
“We in the Siuslaw schools use this time to honor all school staff during this week,” stated the Siuslaw Elementary website. “SES is a great place to be a kid because of the grown-ups we have on staff. Our students work with a number of adults every day at our schools.
The site continued, “Most of our students will meet bus drivers, playground monitors, office staff, kitchen staff, custodians or small group instructors even before they enter a classroom. Once the school day begins, they are all in a safe and caring environment with highly trained and committed teaches. It is here they can be motivated to reach their greatest potential.
“We are proud to work with such a dedicated and professional group.”
In addition, the Siuslaw School Board met for its May meeting Wednesday evening. The board heard reports on the upcoming Scholarship Awards Night on Thursday, May 30, at 5:30 p.m.; the Health Occupations Student Association’s (HOSA) June trip to Orlando, Fla., for the 42nd Annual International Leadership Conference; Florence Community PTA’s two recent awards and more.
During the public comments period at the beginning of the meeting, Siuslaw senior Elizabeth Luevano presented to the board the Senior Class of 2019’s petition to have their teachers more involved with graduation night on June 7.
“Teaching takes a special kind of courage and compassion; and when it comes to our class, a very high patience level,” Luevano said. “The Class of 2019 wouldn’t have come this far without the teachers who were patient despite our impatience. The reason why we are here today is because we humbly request that teachers hand us our diplomas this year and the years to follow.”
Luevano and her friend Hannah Freudenthal gathered 70 signatures from senior students — representing nearly three-quarters of the class — to include with their letter to the board. Eight of the students attended the meeting along with concerned community members.
“We understand the significance that the handing of the diplomas has to the board, and we would just like to be clear that our intent is not malicious or disrespectful,” Luevano continued. “We greatly appreciate the hard work of the school board and we still would like you to be a part of our graduation — and that is why we are requesting this compromise. We request that two teachers of our class’s choosing hands us our diplomas, and before we return to our seats, we shake hands with the board members to thank you for all the hard work you have done for our school district.”
Board Chair Suzanne Mann-Heintz thanked the students for their participation. It wasn’t until the end of the meeting that the board took a moment to discuss the issue.
“For graduation, we have John (Barnett) and Paul (Burns) who have agreed to present diplomas,” Mann-Heintz said. “At this point in time, if it’s the will of the board, we might discuss the petition from students and what we think about their proposal.”
The board restated that the students wish to have two teachers hand the seniors their diplomas, followed by handshakes with the school board representatives. A similar request came before the board last year, which Burns said the board had discussed “at length.”
“I’m sticking with what we talked about last year — that it is an important thing for the board to do that,” he said. “I think it’s one of the few perks of this job that we get to do that.”
Barnett described graduation as an “institution,” with some practices going back to his own graduation.
“When I walked down that aisle in the very same gym that these students are going to be walking down in a few weeks, I personally went out of my way to thank my favorite teachers. I took that one-on-one moment and took that time … face to face to thank those teachers that I felt had impact on my high school career. To me, that felt less pretentious and more genuine than standing in front of a crowd,” he said.
While board members contemplated the way students might select their teachers, they acknowledged the 85 teachers in the district that helped students reach their senior year.
“It’s the school’s celebration,” Burns said. “Our goal from where we start these kids moving through is to have them graduate. We’re celebrating the whole completion of our task of why we’re here in the first place.”
He said that the board, elected by residents in the school district, represent the entire district.
Members of the public disagreed with Burns’ sentiment, questioning how “it’s not the seniors’ graduation” and applauding when Siuslaw High School Vice Principal Garth Gerot said, “I’m always student centered. I think if the class feels this way, that’s really important. It’s their graduation. It’s not ours.”
Mann-Heintz agreed, saying, “I feel like it’s their graduation, and I kind of would like to comply in some way with what they requested. I know it’s an important time and most of the students don’t have a strong personal relationship with us.”
She requested they come up with a compromise.
However, the board was unable to come to a decision during the meeting. Director Guy Rosinbaum said he felt blindsided by the fact that the petition wasn’t placed on the board’s agenda a week prior. He and others learned about the students’ effort just that day in the Siuslaw News .
“We all are trying to work together here for the betterment of the schools. I like it when people get involved and I want them involved. But unfortunately, we have to follow a lot of rules up here. It would be kind of nice if others understood that once in a while and followed as well,” he said.
Barnett echoed this, saying, “It’s not like students didn’t know this graduation was coming. Maybe they aren’t the best versed on how things are done, but instead of being impulsive, I wish this would have been brought up to the board … like last month, so we would have had time to figure out just what we want to do, have some time to discuss it and then we would be better prepared to make a decision.”
In wrapping up the decision, Mann-Heintz said, “The board has a couple of choices. We can decide it, we can not decide it or we can decide at another time. Of course, the next board meeting is not until after graduation.”
The meeting concluded with the decision to not make a decision. Afterwards, some board members checked schedules to see if a follow-up discussion could still be held before the senior students’ final school day on May 31.
“Graduation is something we don’t take lightly,” Barnett said. “Graduation is a daily consideration. … It’s a k-12 celebration, because when we take our kids in (kindergarten), we plan on making them through until 12. We preach graduation rates all the way through.”