Jun. 22—Declining student attendance and registration for W.F. West's early morning "zero hour" music and physical education (P.E.) classes has led the Chehalis School District's administration to tentatively cut the zero-hour period from the district's master schedule for the upcoming year — much to the dismay of the students who benefited from those morning classes.
"Zero period is best for vocal ensembles and Jazz Band. The students who perform in them are the same ones trying to fit in more classes than there is room in the schedule," said David Judd, a former choir and band teacher at W.F. West who taught music at the school for 30 years before retiring in 2001.
Judd was joined by W.F. West alumni, current students and concerned parents during the public comment section of Chehalis School Board's regular meeting on Tuesday in speaking out about how essential that zero hour period is for W.F. West students, particularly those participating in band and choir.
"The reason that we do zero hour Jazz Band is because it wouldn't fit anywhere else for us," said incoming W.F. West senior Sam Mittge, adding that three-fourths of his peers in W.F. West's zero hour Jazz Band class likely wouldn't be able to participate if the class took place during the regular school day due to other advanced classes in their schedule.
"If kids want to be there, they're passionate about music, they will find a way to get there. And ultimately, I think that the role of the school board should be to serve the students and to foster passion," he said.
The district's tentative decision to cut zero hour from the school's master schedule stemmed from declining enrollment districtwide and subsequent need to reconfigure the district's full-time employees (FTE), according to Trisha Smith, assistant superintendent for the Chehalis School District.
"We lost students, and we needed to cut some FTE and we didn't want to cut anyone," Smith said.
The district initially tried finding ways that would mitigate the need to refill positions that were vacated when someone retired, and part of that mitigation work involved tweaking the master schedule for W.F. West.
"Some of our goals of working on the master schedule was, again, to serve all the needs of our students with less FTE, as well as balanced class sizes," Smith said.
When looking at W.F. West's class sizes, the zero hour classes — which include Jazz Band, West Singers and weightlifting — stuck out as having their enrollment dwindle over the last few years.
Enrollment in zero hour classes has steadily declined since 2018, with spring 2022 enrollment coming in at 50% of 2018 enrollment numbers, according to Smith.
"And we don't know if it's other conditions that have caused that or exactly what caused the dwindle," said Smith, who noted the decline started prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the zero hour classes have seen numbers decline, W.F. West's strings program has expanded dramatically over the last few years and there is interest in starting a high-level strings group at the high school, according to Smith.
Additionally, Chehalis Middle School's music programs have seen a spike of interest higher than what the school can currently accommodate — particularly in the school's non-traditional music classes such as steel drums, guitar and ukulele.
"As I look at it, we have lots of needs, both at our elementary and middle school with expanding music programs there. And that's where we regrow programs is in those lower levels," Smith said.
The district's music teachers split their time teaching their subjects at all three levels in the district, so cutting zero hour opens up opportunities for the music teachers to devote more time at the elementary and middle school levels.
"If we had (high school music) clubs, then we could have those teachers available at the end of the day to be back at the middle school to help support additional music classes there or even help our music offerings for our fifth grade students as well," Smith said.
Those involved with the zero hour weightlifting class had not spoken to district administration as of Wednesday morning with opinions about retaining that class, according to Smith.
"Of course, I'm sure we would probably still have staff that would be there and have an open weight room," Smith said.
Their numbers may be lower than previous years, but the students who commit to attending W.F. West's zero hour classes are uniquely dedicated to their education. That's a trait the speakers at Tuesday's meeting believed should be supported.
"Zero hour at W.F. West currently takes place at 6:45 a.m. The fact that we have 41 teenagers willingly getting to school at 6:45 a.m., five days a week, speaks to the power and importance of zero hour," said Sam Mittge's father, Brian Mittge. "This is not a time to say, 'We don't have enough students in it to justify (zero hour classes).' This is the time to say, 'wow, 6:45 and we still have 41 students coming because they love the chance to learn extra.'"
One option the district is considering for continuing the music programs such as Jazz Band and West Singers outside of zero hour is restructuring them as clubs: partly due to the declining enrollment in the zero hour classes and partly because the club designation would allow the programs to have a more flexible schedule, which could help bolster student attendance while still maintaining the teachers' FTE hours.
"When you teach a zero hour, you come in early and you get off early ... So (the band teacher) would just fit more in the regular schedule," Smith said.
But restructuring the class as a club wouldn't be a perfect substitute for the zero hour offerings.
"Right now, zero period music classes allow students to gain experience in multiple musical idioms while still accessing additional academic courses during the school day. And if zero period classes were restructured as clubs, student transcripts would show a reduced breadth of musical experience," said Emily Herd, valedictorian of W.F. West's class of 2011 who is now teaching band and choir in Marysville.
School Board Director J. Vander Stoep took a moment at the end of Tuesday's public comment section to briefly address the commenters.
Administrators have been working on revising the master schedule for about six weeks and will continue to do so over the summer, according to Smith.
"These meetings are not set up to have the board give and take with the public, that's just not the way they're structured," Vander Stoep said. "... I'll just say that we have in the last week or so as board members gotten feedback on this issue. And I know that the superintendent would like to meet with people who are concerned about this to see, are there ... workarounds for this issue?"
Later on in the meeting, during the board's opportunity to discuss the public comment, Superintendent Christine Maloney expressed interest in finding a "happy medium" where the zero hour opportunities can continue in some form without the formal zero hour period.
"It's one of those things that no matter what decisions are made, there are gonna be people that are unhappy, but at the end of the day ... our goal is for students to have programs available," she said.
Regardless of what happens to the zero hour classes, school administrators want to assure the public that it still wholeheartedly supports its music programs.
"We recognize this amazing history with that music department, that they have the incredible musicians that have come out of this," Smith said, adding, "We're not trying to cancel Jazz Band or West Singers. I just need to say that again. We're exploring what else we could do to get numbers up. We want them to grow."