Student anxiety sets in as furlough days mount HSTA lodges complaint against Lingle
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
More than two weeks of instructional time so far this year has been lost to furloughs of public school teachers, and parents and educators say the effects have started to show.
Students are exhibiting more anxiety and more, it seems, are falling behind.
The loss of a series of Fridays from the traditional five-day school week has prompted teachers throughout the state to change their instructional strategies, compressing their lessons into fewer days and fewer hours.
Parents say their children are bringing home more schoolwork. Kids are expressing anxiety about lessons moving too quickly. And teachers and principals say students are often in perpetual vacation mode, unsettled for the intense instruction the shorter weeks now require.
It's unclear whether students have fallen behind because of the loss of classroom time — anecdotally, teachers and principals say the evidence is mixed. The effects on student achievement may not be known until the results of this year's Hawaii State Assessment, which will be administered in April, are released this summer.
"The thing that worries me is that furloughs are becoming normal," said Marguerite Higa, whose 8-year-old daughter attends Noelani Elementary School. "Even kids who loved school before, they're just not taking school as seriously any more."
Her daughter is in the third grade, the first grade level tested under the Hawaii State Assessment, also known as the No Child Left Behind test. Higa said her daughter is scared to take it.
"They are not getting enough reinforcement at school; they don't have the opportunity for repetition that is necessary to feel like they have mastered what they learn. It's like a new topic — a new topic with no chance to really get it," Higa said.
Eleven of the 17 furlough Fridays scheduled in the current school year have come and gone. Efforts by the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the state Board of Education and Gov. Linda Lingle to end the furloughs so far have been unsuccessful since the unpaid days off began Oct. 23.
A total of 34 furlough days were agreed to under the two-year contract with the teachers union back in September.
Parents are not the only ones who have noticed the effects of furloughs on students. Educators say pupils are stressed because of heavy homework loads meant to make up for lost classroom time. They also say students coming off a three-day weekend show up to school antsy and unable to concentrate .
"It's like coming back from spring break every furlough Monday," said Doreen Higa, principal of Momilani Elementary School in Pearl City.
Last week, with Presidents Day observed on a Monday and a furlough day taken the previous Friday, students were out of school for four days. The same occurred in the third week of January with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"They're more out of school than they're in school. It's been tough," the principal said. "We find when they come off of a three-day weekend or a four-day weekend, they sort of forget their school behaviors. ... Monday mornings, they've sort of forgotten what school is all about."
Niu Valley Middle School Principal Justin Mew said students often feel stressed out over more intense homework assignments.
"We're seeing (many) more students talking to their school counselors. They're anxious because there is more homework. More is being asked of them because teachers are still trying to meet all the benchmarks," Mew said.
The Hawaii Content and Performance Standards dictate the specific information and skills students must learn in their grade level. With only 163 school days in the current school year — instead of the usual 180 — teachers are still responsible for covering all the required standards.
To accomplish that in fewer class hours, teachers say they've had to change their instruction methods.
"The biggest issue occurring is the compressed time," said John Sosa, principal of Kaiser High School. "Teachers have to decide the critical nature of what they teach. Teachers are constantly having to make that choice between what they need to cover and what they need to cover more in depth."
Sachi Matsushita, a math teacher at Kaiser High, said she now finds herself choosing between topics that she absolutely needs to cover and those she might be able to touch on only briefly.
"I've been teaching at Kaiser for 15 years and I'm finding that this year it's taking me twice as long to plan so that I can make sure that I am effectively and efficiently teaching the concepts that I need to," she said.
After putting her 4-year-old daughter to bed at night, Matsushita said, she often stays up until 1 a.m. planning her lessons.
Natalia Lugani, a ninth-grade English teacher at Kaiser, said she often leaves out supplementary activities and is helping students become more self-directed.
"With teaching literature, sometimes it's nice to do supplementary things like maybe watching a movie. Some of those things I've definitely had to do away with, just to focus more on the skills and the critical analysis more so than just comprehension of something," Lugani said.
That doesn't mean Lugani's watered down her lessons, and she said she still feels on track to cover what's required.
Dwayne Yuen, a second-grade teacher at Momilani Elementary, said that while he doesn't believe that more homework is the answer to making up for furlough days, he has been assigning more homework than usual.
"I'm trying to cover more in class, and as long as we have parental consent, I try to spend time with the kids after school," Yuen said.
He said his students do not seem to have fallen behind, but said it will be difficult to know the effects of lost class time until the school year comes to a close.
Most educators say the upcoming Hawaii State Assessment probably will be the gauge of furlough Fridays' impact on academic achievement. The HSA testing window begins March 29 and ends April 23.
Most schools administer quarterly or "formative" exams throughout the year leading up to HSA testing to figure out whether students are on track to do well on the statewide exam. Teachers also use these periodic tests to gauge whether they may need to go back over a topic causing difficulty for students.
Principals generally said those periodic exams are not showing one way or another whether students are falling behind or excelling. But most said there is often a disconnect between the formative assessments and HSA results.
At Momilani, Higa said last year's quarterly assessments didn't match the HSA results, which showed that sixth-graders reached 98 percent proficiency for reading and 94 percent for math.
"Whether this year we get the same marks — this is furlough plus a different group of kids," she said.
Mew at Niu Valley Middle School said the formative assessments at his school have shown an increase in students who need extra help.
"We are noticing that there is an increase in students not meeting the standards that are expected. I don't know that it is significant or if furloughs have something to do with that," Mew said.
Yet many students continue to excel regardless of furlough days, he said.
"Initially we were concerned about what the passing rate might be, report card-wise. You know, we really haven't seen a pattern established. We do know that there are students struggling and we are doing whatever we can do to help them along."