Fairfax County proposals posted for later high school start times

The Fairfax County School Board will consider several proposals for changes in the bell schedules on April 23. The Children’s National Medical Center is recommending four different options to achieve the goal of later high school start times. Currently high schools start at 7:20; elementary schools start between 8:00-9:20, and middle schools start between 7:40-8:05.

Under the first option, which would cost $12.4 million, high schools would start at 8:10, middle schools at 8:50, and elementary schools between 7:35-9:40. For a lower cost ($7.6 million), high schools would start at 8:30, middle schools at 9:30, and elementary schools between 7:50 and 9:15.

There are two options which would start middle schools at 7:20. One option would cost $5.6 million, with high schools starting at 8:00 or 8:10, secondary schools at 7:50 or 8:20, and elementary schools starting between 8:00-9:20.  The other option, costing $4.7 million, would start high schools at 8:10-8:20 and elementary schools between 7:45-9:10.

If we are going to all this trouble to avoid having high school students start school at 7:20, it doesn’t make much sense to say that the middle school students should start school at 7:20.  Either 7:20 is too early for adolescents, and we should be willing to spend money to change it, or it is really OK to have such early start times and there is no need to spend money providing later times for just some of the students.

The Blueprint for Change also provides three other options ranging from no cost (modified high school/middle school flip), to $0.3 million (some elementary schools start at 10:00 and end at 4:40) to $2.8 Million (high schools start at 9:15 and end at 4:05).

CNMC recommends that eight community meetings be held in May and June. They also recommend that a revised proposal be presented as new business to the school board in September with a vote in October. Full implementation would be in September 2015.

Here is the text of the presentation that is on the agenda for April 23: [Read more...]

The earliest school start time in the country?

“With the first bell ringing at 6:50 a.m., Cheyenne High School has the earliest start time in the Clark County School District — and possibly in the country,” the Las Vegas Sun reports.

“A hundred years ago, most public schools started around 9 a.m. — when businesses opened, “ Paul Takahashi reports. “However, beginning in the 1970s, cash-strapped school districts across the country realized they could save millions of dollars in transportation costs by starting schools at staggered times.”

Another questionable scheduling practice that started in the 1970s is still seen in Fairfax County, Virginia: weekly early dismissals of elementary school students. Sometimes it takes a very long time to change questionable policies once they become entrenched.

Nevertheless, I don’t think it is fair to characterize the 1970s as a time “where all things go to seed,” as TV critic Hank Steuver recently noted in his review of the first episode of the new season of Mad Men.

The current elementary school schedule in Fairfax County is irresponsible

The Fairfax Times article entitled Fairfax elementary schools watch the clock was reprinted in the Washington Post April 10 under the title “A push to clock in longer at school.” This appeared in the Fairfax Edition of Local Living.

“Interim Deputy Superintendent Dan Parris is leading a working group to study options for improved school schedules across all grade levels, K through 12, according to FCPS spokesman John Torre,” Kate Yanchulis reported. “Yet School Board member Janie Strauss (Dranesville) urges caution in considering a change. As with everything in the school system, Strauss said, the elementary school schedule represents a delicate balance.”

I posted some comments after this article:

“A delicate balance” is not how I would describe the elementary school schedule in Fairfax County Public Schools.  “Out of whack” is more like it.

This article explains that Fairfax provides “a combined 40 minutes each day for lunch and recess.”

Only 10 minutes per day for recess. Really?  Does this make any sense at all? No. And yet this is the unrealistic and impractical limit supposedly in effect for the last seven years. The absurdly limited schedule imposed on the elementary school students in Fairfax County is so confusing that few people understand it in the first place.

Thankfully, the 10-minute recess is rarely enforced. However, this leaves students with less than the mandated amount of instructional time. So, please, let’s not pretend that the current schedule should continue any longer. This is educational malpractice.

The current elementary school schedule is not a carefully considered plan with “a delicate balance.”

The current policy of dismissing elementary school students 2 ½ or 2 hours early every Monday is irresponsible.

See also Fairfax Times reports on the Full Schooldays petition.

Going to school June 25 is not ideal, but it is the reality this year

On Thursday the Fairfax County School Board voted to add a day to the end of the 2013-14 school calendar as a makeup day for the 11th missed day of the year due to weather. The board’s action makes Wednesday, June 25, the last day of the 2013-14 year.  It will be an early dismissal day for all students.

“This has been a unique and challenging year due to snowstorms both early and late in the season,” said FCPS Superintendent Karen K. Garza. “We explored the option of counting instructional hours instead of days; however, our elementary schools would have fallen far short due to our current model of early release Mondays.”

We can avoid such a situation next year, even in the event of another bad winter, by eliminating the Monday early dismissal policy in the elementary schools. A staff committee is already studying options for how to implement full-day Mondays and make other changes in the schedule. To support full-day Mondays, please sign this petition to the Fairfax County School Board to stop Monday early dismissals and provide more recess time. The petition at the link in the previous sentence is posted with Change.org by our Full Schooldays group.

“We understand that adding another day to the end of the school year is not ideal,” Garza said. “But we have consulted with our teachers groups and principal associations, and have strong consensus that adding June 25 as a makeup day is our best option. We will work with our schools to plan meaningful learning experiences for these June makeup days.  We are also exploring modifications to the 2014-15 calendar to ensure that we are not in this situation again.”

FCPS’ adopted calendar for school year 2013-14 identified specific makeup days – February 17, April 7, June 23, and June 24. The calendar approved by the School Board for the current year provided a plan for 10 makeup days.  The 11th snow day occurred on March 17, requiring the need for an additional makeup day.

FCPS officials contacted the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to discuss the possibility of a waiver for June 23-25. VDOE advised that a waiver would not be granted for June 23 and 24 because those days are already reflected in the Board approved calendar for 2013-14 and it would be unlikely that a waiver would be granted for June 25 because state law requires school divisions to certify that all reasonable efforts for making up lost teaching days or teaching hours were exhausted before requesting a waiver. Other Virginia jurisdictions have added time to the instructional day, eliminated early release days, or added full days to comply with the 180 day or 990 hour instructional requirement.

Garza noted that staff had considered converting the early dismissal Mondays into full days this year, “but that would have eliminated critical planning time for elementary teachers, which was a real concern for us.”

I’m sure that a solution to provide adequate teacher planning time and full day Mondays for students can be found for next year.

At the school board meeting on Thursday, Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) proposed a substitute motion to make Monday, June 23, a full instructional day for elementary school students and then ask the Virginia Board of Education to reduce the statutory 180-day requirement. She and Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) said that they thought that the Virginia Board of Education would find it reasonable to substitute the extra hours on Monday afternoon for the elementary schools for the few scheduled hours on Wednesday, June 25. They were the only school board members voting for the motion, which failed.

Here is the text of the failed substitute motion: “I move that the School Board (1) reaffirm the approved 2013-2014 Standard School Year Calendar, including the employee contract end dates, as detailed in the agenda item, (2) designate Monday, June 23, 2014, as a full instructional school day for elementary students, (3) direct the Superintendent to work with the Virginia Board of Education on a reduction of the statutory 180 day requirement, (4) designate Wednesday, June 25, 2014, as an additional school day and last day of school for students should the efforts with the Virginia Board of Education fail, and (5) direct savings to the FY 2014 year-end balance.”

Correction: The sentence regarding the substitute motion was corrected to add “elementary school” before “students and then ask…” April 18, 2014

Teacher Rep is Working with Superintendent for Full Mondays

Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT), has informed union members that he is working with new Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza to end the policy of dismissing elementary school students early on Mondays.

In an April 5 update to members, Greenburg said conditions that were in place when the policy began in 1972 are no longer present. Professional development and some teacher collaboration now can be done online and, he added, “previous superintendents abused” the policy by adding requirements unrelated to teacher planning and development.

Greenburg said they will move to change the policy with full collaboration of teachers. “As stated in previous FCFT Updates, the budget is still the focus, but I wanted you to know what was going on ‘upstairs’ in the system now,” he said. “We will ‘move things’ to improve our schools with our educators knowing, and being actively involved.”

Greenburg said he wants members to know what is happening with “elementary day re-design possibilities and protecting unencumbered planning time.” He provided the following history:

In 1972, the FCPS school board adopted Monday early closing for elementary schools.

Tuesday through Friday school hours were extended by one-half hour.

To compensate for the loss of planning time on Tuesday through Friday (that was now student contact time), elementary teachers were provided time on Monday afternoons to do individual planning and complete professional development trainings.

In 1972, we had ‘team meetings’ which were collaborative. However, they were not scheduled by others and did not take all afternoon. Team meetings did not impact our unencumbered planning time, as they were directed by teams of teachers who understood each other’s planning and logistical needs.

In 1972, a lot of the inservicing and professional development was held in person at schools throughout the county (think: no internet or on-line professional development). Elementary teachers would go off many Mondays to train at other schools.

Since 1972, there have been many attempts to eliminate Monday Early Closing. All have been fought by FCFT and our elementary teachers, because we realized that planning and professional development are critically needed in order for us to teach, most effectively.

It has always been an issue of quality of instruction: Our students and their learning come first; they deserve a well-trained and prepared teacher.

It has also been about culture and trust.

Previous superintendents abused Monday Early Closing. They did not honor their promise to use it for teachers to accomplish individual planning or professional development. 

They allowed (and encouraged) principals to fill the time with CLC or other ‘meetings’ or to assign other ‘data work’ or ‘duties’ to be accomplished.

It is not 1972 anymore.  

What’s happening now.

Monday afternoon is not necessary to accomplish professional development requirements – now (much is on-line).

Monday afternoons are not being used most efficiently to help teachers with unencumbered planning needs – now.

Monday afternoons are not being used effectively to instruct elementary students – now.

Monday afternoons are not helping us to get the hours of instruction in we need with our students, so that we can have greater flexibility in regards to the FCPS calendar, either (the recent snow day situation is a good example of why this is an issue).

After three years of screaming about elementary planning, we finally have a superintendent that ‘gets it’ and I trust to really help.

We also have the most ‘employee friendly’ school board ever seated in FCPS. They are committed to addressing teacher workload issues. Sooner than later would be better…

Karen has identified the inequity in elementary vs. upper level unencumbered planning time. She has committed to addressing the problem through formal changes in regulations (requirements) that protect elementary teacher’s planning time. These changes would not just protect time on Mondays…but all week.

She also understands that moving meetings and assignments to before or after school is not an acceptable solution. She has assured us that will not happen, if we make the change.

She has a group working on a plan for making the adjustment.

Nothing will move forward without us; she has been discussing this with me from the time she arrived – as I asked for her thoughts on it. School Board members (like Pat Hynes, who was an FCPS elementary teacher and FCFT member) will not approve any changes that would harm teachers, or their planning and professional development.

I do not have further details at this point. As soon as I have any, I will get them to you.

I will keep you updated, as we move through the process.

Stay tuned for more…

Full-day Mondays might be implemented in September

The school calendar was discussed at the Superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Council (STAC) on April 2. According to the minutes posted on the website of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, “One STAC rep asked if we may go to full day Mondays next year (for elementary). The answer was ‘maybe.’ More details will be available on this in a few months.”

This question came up during a discussion about a snow make-up day. In addition to developing a proposal for this year, “We are looking at the calendar for next year (again—so this doesn’t happen next year),” the STAC minutes state.

Garza and staff members considered asking the state for a waiver this year, but the state said that this request would be denied because FCPS has not done ‘everything in our power in our calendar’ to address the issue:

“Some other school systems have:
• Added time to the day
• Take time from Spring Break
So… we have not tried as ‘hard’ as other systems. We will have to come up with a solution. With all that said, the best alternative is to go on June 25th. We know it will not be a good day ‘for instruction’.”

The decision on the snow make-up day will be made at the April 10 meeting of the Fairfax County School Board.  Here is the explanation in the agenda for the proposal:

Key points:

On December 6, 2012, the Board approved the 2013-2014 school calendar.  That calendar provided a plan for 10 makeup days if school was cancelled throughout the school year.  During the 2013-2014 school year, there were 11 days when school was cancelled, resulting in the requirement for another makeup day to be added to the calendar.  The 11th snow day occurred on March 17, 2014.  Therefore, the staff recommendation is to add Wednesday, June 25, 2014, as the 11th makeup day and designate June 25 as the last day of school for 2013-2014.

Employees:  The last date for employees will be kept as currently published on the employee calendar. The last day will be June 25 for 194-day teacher- and unified-scale personnel, 195-day food service personnel, 197-day food services personnel, and 198-day teacher –scale personnel. The last day will be June 26 for 199-day unified-scale personnel (office assistants).

Several summer programs including on-line courses, credit recovery, and SOLs require staff to report on June 26, 2014, therefore it will not be necessary to modify the schedule of these programs.


That the School Board (1) reaffirm the approved 2013-2014 Standard School Year Calendar, (2) approve the employee contract end dates, as detailed in the agenda item, and (3) identify an additional school day by designating Wednesday, June 25, 2014, as the last day of school for students.

High school students should have no more than two hours of homework per night

“The best research we have on the link between homework and achievement — that of Duke University’s Harris Cooper — suggests a homework cap of two hours per night, across all subjects, for high school students,” Mike Miller says.

In a letter to the Washington Post, Miller notes that the National PTA, the National Education Association, and Fairfax County Public Schools have endorsed these findings. Miller serves on a subcommittee on homework at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where he teaches English.

Fairfax Times reports on the Full Schooldays petition

Yesterday the Fairfax Times posted an article about our petition.  Fairfax elementary schools watch the clock. “The Full Schooldays group started an online petition calling for full-day Mondays for elementary schools.”

Kate Yanchulis reports that school board member Janie Strauss (Dranesville) urges caution in considering a change. “There are obviously pluses and minuses,” Strauss said. “But the bottom line is that it’s hard, within the current budget situation, to add another program that would cost us more.”

Yanchulis then quoted my remarks, “We’ve heard the excuse that it’s a budget problem for years and years,” Shea said. “Whether or not it’s cost neutral, somehow we need to find a way to give more instruction to our students. It’s the building block to everything else in the school system.”

Montgomery County will make up two snow days

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has made final adjustments to this year’s school calendar and will make up two snow days. Under a plan approved by the Maryland State Department of Education today, school will be held on the following days:

-  Monday, April 21, 2014, also known as Easter Monday
-  Friday, June 13, 2014, which will be an early release day and the last day of school for students (June 12 will be now be a full day)

No other snow days will have to be made up under the state-approved plan. The 2013-2014 school calendar has 184 days of instruction, which is four more than required by state law. MCPS has had 10 snow days this school year and, therefore, is six days under the 180 days of instruction required by state law.

On Wednesday, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery granted a waiver that allows MCPS to go four days below the required days of instruction if school is held on April 21 and June 13. On Monday she denied an earlier waiver request to waive five days and make up one snow day.

“We appreciate Dr. Lowery’s recognition that this has been a very unusual winter and her willingness to grant us some flexibility in our calendar,” said Superintendent of Schools Joshua P. Starr. “By holding classes on April 21 and June 13, we can make up two valuable days of instruction without significantly disrupting our community’s summer schedules.”

Fairfax school start time proposals are almost ready

Several scheduling options for later high school start times will be presented at a Fairfax County School Board work session April 23, 11 a.m. The Children’s National Medical Center was hired by Fairfax County Public Schools to figure out the best options for starting high schools after 8 a.m. The study team has a Smart School Start website which recently posted new Frequently Asked Questions.

Yesterday the SLEEP (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal) group reported that a SLEEP representative was among the participants at the recent stakeholder meeting on March 7. SLEEP reports that the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, the Athletic Council, the Park Authority, the teachers’ organizations, the principals associations, cluster directors, and assistant superintendents also participated.

“Working with FCPS, the Smart School Start team plans to hold meetings to gather broader input on some potential scenarios, so that they may be further improved and adapted to better meet the needs of the community,” the SLEEP email said.