Fairfax VOTER describes schedule and staffing changes in FCPS

The December Fairfax VOTER features an article about the changing schedules in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). This newsletter for the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area includes a description of the switch to full-day Mondays for the elementary schools.

On June 26, the Fairfax County School Board voted to stop dismissing elementary school students 2.5 hours early every Monday. This has increased instructional time for students and allowed for 20 minutes of daily recess. In addition, the change will guarantee dedicated planning time for elementary teachers totaling 300 minutes per week.

As of November 2014, a total of 63.8 positions were allocated to schools as a result of the implementation of full-day Mondays. Brandynn Reaves, a public information specialist with the Department of Communications and Community Outreach, provided me and the other authors of this article with the following information:

The allocation was primarily made as additional art/music/physical education (PE) teachers, but schools are able to utilize the positions in alternate ways to meet their individual needs (e.g., school-based technology specialist, world language teacher, etc.) assuming they are able to provide sufficient planning time for teachers.

There were 755.2 art/music/PE teacher positions budgeted in FY 2014 for elementary schools.  The FY 2015 budget includes 741.2 art/music/PE teacher positions (prior to the 63.8 positions allocated as a result of full-day Mondays).  The net reduction of 14.0 positions is the result of budget reductions due to the increase in class size and needs-based staffing reductions offset by growth in these positions due to student enrollment and demographic adjustments

The Voter article also describes the calendar changes this year and the school board’s decision to provide later start times for high schools and secondary schools next fall.

Short lunch and recess periods criticized by Seattle parents

Seattle students being denied enough lunch and recess time in school.  The Ballard News Tribune reports:

Parent observations have found that many schools in Seattle have only 15 minutes of lunch and 15 minutes of recess. As a result, children who eat hot lunch often had as little as 4 to 6 minutes of actual seated eating time to finish their meal. For example, Whittier students who brought sack lunches had an average of 10.5 minutes to eat, while kids who get hot lunch—including those receiving free and reduced lunches—have an average of 7 minutes to eat, as their 15-minute lunch period includes time standing in line for food. Parents also reported their own children were coming home hungry, with low blood sugar, and often had full lunchboxes due to a lack of time to finish their meals.

A shorter answer on full-day Mondays would have been better

One of the answers in the FAQ (frequently asked questions) document posted by Fairfax County Public Schools regarding full-day Mondays is somewhat misleading.

The question:

Why this (Full-Day Mondays) is a priority when there have been severe budget cuts, pay freezes, and destaffs: Why are those needs being ignored and this taking priority?

The answer:

The priority has been to ensure we meet the instructional needs of students and maximize instructional time. The change to full-day Mondays for elementary schools was done to create dedicated planning time for teachers and meet state accreditation requirements for instruction. FCPS was only able to meet the required 180 days or 990 hours of instruction when we had inclement weather by adding time or days to the school year. Additional staff may be hired to help ensure planning time for teachers.

Yes, it is certainly true that one of the main reasons for implementing full-day Mondays was to “meet state accreditation requirements for instruction.”

However, it is misleading to imply that inclement weather was the only challenging aspect of meeting the required 180 days or 990 hours of instruction. Even if there was no time at all lost due to inclement weather, Fairfax County elementary school students were still short of the required time. The only way they could have met the state standards would have been to limit the amount of time for recess to 10 minutes per day.

So, a short answer to this question would have been better. As School Board Chairman Tamara Derenak Kaufax explained in a letter sent to Sharon Bulova, “The timing of the decision after the FY 2015 budget was approved was not our normal process, but FCPS was not in compliance with state requirements to provide a minimum of 990-hours of instruction with an early release on Mondays.”

Fairfax County Public Schools will probably receive a larger transfer

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted 8-2 today to give “guidance” to the school board in budgeting for next year to expect a possible, but not guaranteed, increase of the transfer by 3 percent plus the amount of the cost of full-day Mondays in 2015-16.

At the public hearing preceding the vote, I urged the board to give the school system additional money for the FY 2015 Revised Budget. This was a request the school board had made earlier, but at a joint County-School Board budget meeting September 2, Chairman Sharon Bulova instead proposed adjusting the FY 2016 budget guidance to include providing FCPS with ongoing funding for the actual cost of full-day Mondays in addition to the transfer increase. School Board Chairman Tamara Derenak Kaufax sent Bulova a September 5 memo thanking her for that proposal and did not ask for additional funds for FY 2015.

However, even this compromise was not acceptable to Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) or Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence). At today’s meeting, Frey said it was wrong on so many levels. He questioned how full-day Mondays could be such a high priority when it wasn’t even included in the budget that the school board approved in May. He said, “We are destroying our own credibility.”

I started out my testimony by saying “Yesterday was the first Monday in over 40 years that all students in our elementary schools were able to have a full day in school.”

Frey asked why it was such an urgent matter to change a policy that had been in effect for 40 years. Derenauk Kaufax had explained this very well in her earlier memo: “The timing of the decision after the FY 2015 budget was approved was not our normal process, but FCPS was not in compliance with state requirements to provide a minimum of 990-hours of instruction with an early release on Mondays.”

The state requirements had changed in 2006 and at the time I pointed this out as an urgent reason to eliminate the Monday early dismissal policy. This February I helped start a petition urging the school board to end this policy. We said, “Fairfax County should expand the elementary school schedule to make it easier for schools to comply with the state requirements for the standard school day while at the same time officially ending the unrealistic 10-minute limit for recess.“

Frey also questioned why a few extra snow days would make a schedule change such a priority.  I think it just dilutes the severity of the time deficit to cite the snow day issue as a justification for reform. That was only a very small part of the problem. It’s not about the snow days; it’s about the standard school days.

Here are the comments I made at the public hearing:

Yesterday was the first Monday in over 40 years that all students in our elementary schools were able to have a full day in school. Last February I helped start a petition urging the Fairfax County School Board to end the policy of dismissing elementary school students 2 ½ hours early every Monday. We said, “Fairfax County should expand the elementary school schedule to make it easier for schools to comply with the state requirements for the standard school day while at the same time officially ending the unrealistic 10-minute limit for recess.“

On June 26, the school board voted to implement a uniform elementary day that will increase instructional time and will allow for 20 minutes of daily recess for children. The cost of $7.6 million for all 142 elementary schools represents a needed investment for a very substantial improvement in the schedules for both students and teachers.

The school board deserves applause for making this decision, not a slap on the wrist. I urge you to demonstrate your full support of this vitally needed reform by giving the school system additional money for the FY 2015 Revised Budget.

Here is a link to the FY 2014 Carryover Board Motions that were approved today. The paragraph discussing the transfer says:

“Board approval of an increase in they FY 2016 planned transfer for school operations, which is currently projected at 3%, to also cover the FY 2016 costs of full day Mondays. The School have funded, within their Carryover Review, the preliminary estimate of Full Day Mondays for FY 2015. Once the actual costs of implementation have been identified, the FY 2016 budget forecast will reflect these recurring costs.”

The carryover also adjusted the County budget for school clinics, School-Age Child Care (SACC), and the Monday programming at RECenters and Nature Centers operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Whatever misgivings Frey and Smythe may have had about the timing of the implementation of full-day Mondays this September, I don’t understand why they were not willing to agree to the possibility of new funding for FY 2016. It’s a positive development that a majority of the supervisors voted for this.

The memo by Derenak Koufax ends with thanks to Bulova and the other supervisors who supported additional funding:

On behalf of the School Board and the Fairfax County Public Schools administration, I want to thank you for proposing a motion to adjust the FY 2016 budget guidance to include providing FCPS with ongoing funding for the actual cost of full-day Mondays in addition to the transfer increase. I would also like to express our gratitude to the Supervisors who publicly offered their support for this recommendation. We recognize and thank the Supervisors fur funding the costs that will occur in the County’s budget due to full-day Mondays this school year.

The School Board and the FCPS community appreciate that a strong investment in education remains your top priority. Thank you again for the collaborative dialogue and the opportunity to share the benefits of implementing a full-day of instruction on Mondays.”

Correction–A typo in the number of hours was corrected June 10. (990 hours, not 99 hours)

I criticize the critics of additional funding for the schools

It would have been absurd for the school board to reject a much needed improvement solely on the grounds that it would have been more pleasing to the bureaucratic workings of the Fairfax County budgeting process to have approved the proposal in January.”

This is a quote from the additional comments I have posted on why the Board of Supervisors should provide more funds to the school system.

So far there are nine comments on the Washington Post article Fairfax full-day Mondays meeting ends with tense exchange on funding.

Someone who often posts under the name “1bnthrdntht” noted that the other days were lengthened decades ago when Monday was shortened, stated “FCPS has always provided the required number of hours for classes,” then asked me, “So how is this Monday change the ‘right thing’?”

My response:

Yes the other days were lengthened over 40 years ago. Meanwhile other school districts have also lengthened their days, all of them. FCPS has not been consistently providing the required numbers of hours for classes for the past 7 years. In response to my complaints about the lack of sufficient time for recess, FCPS lengthened the hours of some schools slightly, of others quite a bit, to allow just enough time in the week for 10 minutes per day for recess. At that time there were 16 schools with full day Mondays who did not need to have a very short recess. However, all schools reverted back to early dismissals in the past few years, so all of the elementary schools had enough time in the day to provide only 10 minutes for recess. I know that many, and perhaps all the schools actually provided more time for recess, so they were not meeting the requirements in the Standards of Accreditation. In your experience, were recess periods limited to 10 minutes per day? Do you think this is an adequate amount of time for recess?

So far I have received no reply to these questions.

Another commenter, “cosmic9393,” accused the school board of lying about the budget, saying, “For once, Frey is absolutely right.”

I replied:

Last January the FCPS administration did NOT have a plan for full-day Mondays. However, let’s give Superintendent Karen Garza credit for tasking the new Interim Deputy Superintendent, Dan Parris, with the difficult task of leading a working group to come up with a plan for providing an affordable way of providing full-day Mondays for the students AND alternative planning time for the teachers. This working group was still in the midst of its deliberations when I met with Mr. Parris in March. Even though he was optimistic that they could come up with a good plan, there was certainly not sufficient grounds for amending the budget request to the Board of Supervisors in April. For years and years the prospect of changing the elementary schedule has been such a controversial issue that it was hardly even talked about. The Board of Supervisors would have paid no attention whatsoever to a request for an additional amount of money on the chance that a plan would be developed and approved by the school board sometime in the following weeks.
So, Frey is absolutely wrong. The school board was not hiding any cards under the table when it made its request in April. When they were given some good cards in May, in the form of a golden opportunity to improve the disgraceful and inadequate elementary school schedule, they rightly decided to play the good hand that was dealt them.
It would have been absurd for the school board to reject a much needed improvement solely on the grounds that it would have been more pleasing to the bureaucratic workings of the Fairfax County budgeting process to have approved the proposal in January.
It would have been criminal to continue with the status quo for another whole year, all the while failing to be in compliance with state standards for the school day.
It is time for the Board of Supervisors to give a resounding vote of support to the Fairfax County School Board for finally doing the right thing. Give more money for the students.

Board of Supervisors should provide more funds

Fairfax full-day Mondays meeting ends with tense exchange on funding – The Washington Post. I posted these comments:

Superintendent Karen Garza and the Fairfax County School Board did the right thing by implementing full-day Mondays. The Board of Supervisors should support their decision to do the right thing for the students. When you have a choice between right and wrong, you choose what is right. It is as simple as that. I helped start a petition in February asking the school board to implement full-day Mondays and provide a longer time for recess. The petition stated:

“The Virginia Standards of Accreditation state that the standard school day for students in grades 1 through 12 shall average at least 5 ½ hours, excluding breaks for meals and recess. With a half hour dedicated to lunch, FCPS elementary schools theoretically have only 10 minutes per day available for recess. Thankfully, the 10-minute recess is rarely enforced. However, this leaves students with less than the mandated amount of instructional time.”

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said he was displeased with the way the school system implemented the change after budget negotiations were over. Would he have preferred for the school system to continue shortchanging the students?

As our Full Schooldays petition stated, “Fairfax County should expand the elementary school schedule to make it easier for schools to comply with the state requirements for the standard school day while at the same time officially ending the unrealistic 10-minute limit for recess. The Fairfax County School Board should end the policy of dismissing elementary school students 2 ½ or 2 hours early every Monday.”

This was a very serious problem that needed to be fixed. Now it is fixed. The Board of Supervisors (BOS) should provide some money to show their support for the only lawful and logical course of action that was available to the School Board.
The BOS will hold a public hearing on the supplemental appropriation of funds next Tuesday. They should wait to hear the speakers before deciding on their vote on the funding.

Prince George’s secondary school eliminates recess

A Prince George’s County charter school currently serving grades 6-8 is shortening the school day by eliminating the daily 25-minute recess period. College Park Academy opened in 2013 with grades 6-7. The charter school is adding a grade every year until it reaches 12th grade and 700 students.

The charter agreement calls for a 7.5 hour-long day, from 8:25 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. Last night the Prince George’s County Board of Education approved the school’s request to move the dismissal time to 3:20 p.m. and cancel recess. This waiver request was granted on an emergency basis so that the change can go into effect immediately.

“Students at College Park Academy have had recess since the school opened a year ago,” the Washington Post reports. “According to county school regulations, middle schools are not required to offer recess, and a schools spokesman said that the county’s middle schools don’t have it. County elementary schools ‘should’ offer recess for ‘no less than 15 minutes per day and for no more than 30 minutes per day,’ according to regulations in Prince George’s.”

Should schools allow a recess break every hour?

Deseret News reports, “For every 45 minutes in a Finnish classroom, students get a 15-minute break.” An American teacher who started teaching in Finland was surprised by how much more attentive students were after having a recess break after every hour of instruction. When he started teaching in Finland, he first created longer blocks of class time with a longer break later in the day. However, a fifth-grader objected, “I need my 75 minutes of recess.”

Although Walker was providing the same amount of recess, he decided to revise the schedule, putting breaks at the end of each hour.

The difference in the classroom was immediate. No more zombies. Students returned from breaks with energy and better focus. They did more with less time. They enjoyed it more. Walker was a convert.

Olga Jarret, a retired education professor at Georgia State University, has written a white paper for the U.S. Play Coalition noting that there are multiple studies that show “improved focus and classroom behavior, including less fidgeting and hyperactivity and more participation in class discussion after recess.”

Play helps in brain development

Scientists say child’s play helps build a better brain. NPR focuses on how play relates to learning. According to Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”

Pellis says children need to have plenty of time for free play without rules or coaches. He also says that play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of the brain. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.”

I wonder whether further study would find other situations where the neurons are changed. Another question would be, what is the definition of play? Can’t work be experienced as play sometimes? I’ll have to find out more about these issues.

I’m glad that Fairfax County has officially ended the previous limit of 10 minutes per day for recess; however, I hope that the new 20-minute recesses being scheduled are not necessarily a maximum amount of time. If they are, further study needs to be made of the overall time in the elementary schedule for the 2015-16 school year. There should be enough flexibility in the schedule to allow 30-minute recess periods.

Money for full-day Mondays

The Washington Post has an article regarding tonight’s agenda item for the Fairfax County School Board on allocating money for full-day Mondays in the elementary schools.

The article includes comments from some members of the Board of Supervisors on whether they would provide any additional money. I posted a comment to the article, noting that although it is probably true, as Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said, that school officials had not mentioned a need to end half-day Mondays during their lengthy budget negotiations, I mentioned it and discussed it with my supervisor, Penny Gross (D-Mason). She is well aware of how inadequate the Monday early dismissal schedule has been for the elementary schools.

Under this schedule, the only way the elementary schools can comply with the state requirements for the length of the school day would be to limit recess to 10 minutes per day. I have not heard any of the supporters of the status quo argue in favor of a limit of 10 minutes per day for recess. I have also not heard any calls for a deliberate policy of not meeting the state standards for the length of the school day. So, in essence, the school board really has no choice but to fix this inadequate schedule. The Board of Supervisors should encourage and support the schools system’s effort to remedy the serious problem with the elementary school schedule. Following state regulations is critically important. The solution must be implemented immediately, even if it means that nonrecurring funds are used.