Hints of possible change in Fairfax elementary school schedules?

At the Fairfax County School Board work session on the FY 2015 Advertised Budget tonight, Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said that she was “profoundly grateful” that Dan Parris, the interim deputy superintendent, was working on possible changes to the elementary school schedule that would save rather than cost money while also providing full-day Mondays.  If he achieves this objective he should no longer be an “interim” but a permanent deputy superintendent.

Earlier Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) had also expressed a wish for full- day Mondays if good arrangements can be made for teacher planning time.

Perhaps there might be some chance that this insider approach might work out. However, I am skeptical. I would rather see budget amendments, which would be a more tangible sign that there is a real chance for change this September.

At the very least I would like to see the school board vote to support a uniform elementary school day of 6 hours and 40 minutes this September. For the past 25 years the board has repeatedly avoided taking such a positive step.

Monday early dismissals were discussed at recent forum

The December issue of the Fairfax Voter, the newsletter of the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area, features an article about the new school year and a panel discussion hosted by the Washington Post in September. The discussion was titled “Behind the Headlines: the State of Education in Fairfax County.” Topics covered included the budget, discipline policies, and school schedules. Here is an excerpt covering some scheduling issues:

The moderator of the panel, Post columnist Robert McCartney, read an email about the short day Mondays in elementary schools and its impact on working parents that stated “The early dismissal on Monday causes me to miss hours and wages.”

Dr. Garza answered, “How do we structure the school days and year? We have to consider Art, Music, P.E. Teachers do need time to work together and plan.  Teacher expectations have increased, but the time is still the same from a century ago.  We need more time.”

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said, “Monday afternoons are critical for collaborative team planning – not only at the school, but across the county. We already have low teacher morale.  We need the planning time.”

Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said that if teachers sacrifice planning and development time on Mondays, the quality of instruction could be jeopardized. He also said that early dismissal Mondays is not a sustainable model and that we need to look overall at how schools are scheduled. He said Fairfax should focus first on later start times.

Garza said she supports later high school start times. “In my former system, high schools started at 8:20 and elementary schools started a little earlier.”  She noted that Fairfax is complicated because we have 395 square miles to coordinate and that people also have their routines. She said, however, “This issue has been debated since 1985.  I am not that patient.  We’ve got to decide this issue and be done with it.”

Source: Fairfax Voter, December 2013, p.3

League of Women Voters urged the school board to set length of school day

Three years ago the Fairfax County School Board voted to revise Policy 3415, which discusses the length of the school day for students. I delivered testimony on behalf of the League of Women Voters stating that the school board should retain full authority to set the length of the school day. Here is the testimony:

Statement to Fairfax County School Board
December 2, 2010
Agenda Item 6.03: School Board Policy

Good evening Chairman Smith, members of the board, and Superintendent Dale. I am Virginia Fitz Shea, speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area for President Jane E. George, who cannot attend tonight.

The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political membership organization which builds citizen participation in the democratic process. The League believes that democratic government depends upon the informed and active participation of its citizens and requires that governmental bodies protect the citizen’s right to know by giving adequate notice of proposed actions.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the proposal to revise the Fairfax County Public Schools’ Policy 3415, which currently sets the length of the school day for students. The proposal is to revise this policy in its entirety to delegate authority to the Superintendent to establish the length of the school day “in accordance with school system needs and state law.”

This is such a major policy change that it should have been discussed at a work session prior to being introduced as new business. The League supports well defined channels for community input and review for FCPS policies. We note that there has been no effort to ask for community input on this agenda item. There is no work session on this topic currently scheduled between the introduction of this proposal as new business and the vote, which is scheduled for December 16. Therefore the School Board has made no provision to modify these policy revisions prior to a vote. Since the choice is apparently to vote yes or no on the entire agenda item, the League recommends that you vote against this proposal. [Read more…]

Greg Gibson discusses ways Fairfax schools can save money

Last month a report from the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget’s (VDPB) School Efficiency Review Program was presented to the Fairfax County School Board. Today the school board had a chance to ask more questions about the report by Gibson Consulting Group and other possible recommendations for saving money. Rona Ackerman and I attended the meeting today to take notes for a report that will be in the December Voter newsletter published by the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area.

Greg Gibson, president, Gibson Consulting Group, recommended 11 additional possible areas of study that might yield cost savings. He said there is a difference between simply cutting something and re-engineering work so that it doesn’t take as much time. He noted that cost savings can sometimes be achieved by re-evaluating the way teacher planning periods are scheduled.

Although school board members were hesitant about some of his suggestions, they were interested in at least studying the various options.

Part of any study should involve comparing practices in Fairfax to those in some other school districts. I hope that this study includes the options for alternative types of teacher planning time in the elementary schools. There are quite a few disadvantages to the current practice of dismissing all the elementary school students two hours early every Monday.

The second work session involved the budget. Although the budget outlook is rather gloomy, it is helpful to combine budget considerations with new thinking about how to be more efficient. If the school board keeps in mind the goal of having full day Mondays, it may be extra careful about any plan to cut instructional assistants or specialist teachers who can provide additional planning time for the classroom teachers. This is one reason I am skeptical about the proposal to cut the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools (FLES) program. Currently the FLES teacher comes into the classroom twice a week for 30 minutes each session to team teach with the classroom teacher. Instead of using the team teaching approach, Fairfax could allow the classroom teacher to have planning time. This planning time could be part of the substitute for the current block of time on Monday afternoons.

Superintendent Karen Garza said she appreciated the article that was in the Washington Post about the budget, but she also noted that “I have no proposal or plan today. It is too early in the process.”

The Fairfax County elementary school week is shorter than in many other school districts

The Fairfax Times discusses how a possible change in the Monday early dismissal policy would affect classroom duties for Fairfax elementary teachers.  The Times said:

The full-day Monday debate has been brewing for nearly a decade and won’t be resolved in 15 or 20 minutes. In one corner sit working parents whose schedules (and wallets) are turned upside-down each Monday while their counterparts in Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties send their kids to school for five full days. Some question whether the current schedule places their children at a competitive disadvantage.

To frame things properly, it’s important to dispel the myth that Fairfax students and teachers spend fewer hours in class than their peers across the region. In fact, instructional school days were lengthened by half an hour four days a week so that the teachers could have their planning and training time on Mondays.

I commented:

It’s true that when Mondays were shortened in 1971, the other days were lengthened. However, the total amount of time the elementary school students spend in school each week is exactly the same today as it was before 1971: 30 hours and 50 minutes. Since that time, the length of the school day in middle and high schools have been lengthened. Also, other school districts increased the length of the school day over the past 40 years. Now, Fairfax County is tied with Prince George’s County for the shortest length of the elementary school week. Prince William County, which ended its early dismissal policy in 2004, gives its students 32 ½ hours in school each week, as does Charles County, Washington, D.C., and Stafford County. Falls Church City, Fauquier County, and Loudoun County have a school day of six hours and 45 minutes, for a weekly total of 33 hours and 45 minutes. Arlington County does have some early dismissals, but still has a longer school week than Fairfax. Arlington dismisses 12 of its elementary schools two hours early on Wednesdays, so those students have a total of 31 hours and five minutes per week in school. The other 10 elementary schools in Arlington have Limited Early Release, where most weeks the students have full days on Wednesdays and a total of 33 hours and five minutes per week in school.

In Fairfax County, most teachers have a 7.5-hour work day with a 30-minute lunch break. Other school districts with these contract hours include Arlington County, Charles County, Washington, D.C., Falls Church City, Fauquier County, Prince George’s County, and Stafford County. Other Washington metropolitan area school districts have contract hours ranging from seven hours (Loudoun and Prince William), to 7.25 hours (Alexandria City), to eight hours (Manassas City and Montgomery County). In Anne Arundel County there are 37.5 hours per week in the standard teacher contract. “The ‘normal’ workday is 7 hours with the remaining 2.5 hours per week used for meetings or other activities as directed by the principal in consultation with the Faculty Advisory Council. This is the sort of creative solution to arranging teacher contract hours that might be considered in Fairfax County.

All options should be on the table. It would be absurd to “study” teacher planning time while saying, “Don’t even think about changing the Monday schedule.”

Children’s National Medical Center to develop plan for later school start times for Fairfax County

In order to help students get the sleep they need to perform at their best and optimize their health, Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine has been contracted by the Fairfax County School Board to develop a plan to delay high schools’ start time to 8 a.m. or later. Currently, almost all Fairfax County public high schools start at 7:20 a.m.

During the next eight months, the Children’s National Pediatric Sleep Medicine team, led by Judith Owens  and Danny Lewin, will partner with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), students, parents, educators, administrators, and other community stakeholders to develop a “Blueprint for Change” to accomplish this task.

The Fairfax County School Board should request that the Children’s National Medical Center consider the option of providing a full day in school on Mondays for the elementary school students. This is a vital component of any reform in school schedules for the county.

Fairfax County is the 11th largest school district in the United States, serving more than 181,000 students in 196 elementary, middle, and high schools, and is the largest school district in the U.S. to consider delaying high school start times. It was also probably the first school district in the nation to institute weekly early dismissals of elementary school students. Now some high schools also have some early dismissals or late arrivals. Any re-evaluation of the schedules should consider the option of a uniform day five days a week for all schools. Many promises to provide full day Mondays have been broken over the years. It’s time to provide the younger students at least an average amount of time in school. It is absurd that one of the wealthiest school districts in the nation has cited budgetary constraints as the justification for continually refusing to end the dysfunctional early dismissal schedule.

The Division of Sleep Medicine will take a series of inter-related steps, including a needs assessment and a review of best practices found in other school districts that have delayed start times. They should also look for best practices in school districts that don’t have early dismissals or late arrivals on a weekly basis.

Town hall and community meetings will be held in fall and early winter of 2013 to provide feedback as the team develops a set of “best fit” options for ultimate consideration for ratification by the School Board. An online portal (www.smartschoolstart.org) will provide an interactive home including opportunities for community feedback and frequent updates during the research and planning process for the ‘Blueprint for Change’ report. Frequent updates on news and information will be posted on Facebook (Facebook.com/Smartschoolstart) and via Twitter (@smartschoolstrt).

“The scientific evidence is irrefutable: chronic sleep loss and disruption in circadian rhythms associated with early high school start times are associated with negative consequences including poor academic performance, increased sport-related injuries, and potential long-term increases in cardiovascular and metabolic (i.e., type 2 diabetes) health risks. We know that delaying high school start times increases total sleep time and positively impacts academic achievement and school attendance. There are also documented mental and physical health benefits for students that include reductions in rates of depression and fewer drowsy driving crashes,” stated Judith Owens, Director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National, and an internationally recognized authority on children and sleep.

A key component of the Children’s National team’s involvement will be to inform, actively engage, and gather input from everyone potentially impacted by this change, from students and families to teachers, coaches, after-school program directors, and community organizations, as part of the planning process. Danny Lewin, associate director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National, sleep researcher, and clinician, added, “In developing a set of best fit scenarios, including the potential impact on busing and transportation, an important goal is to minimize cost and disruption to the community.”

Surveys conducted in Fairfax County Public Schools have found that high school students are not receiving the appropriate amount of sleep to function at their best. In 2011, a survey of 8th, 10th and 12th grade students in Fairfax County found that two-thirds of students reported sleeping seven hours or less on an average school night, two hours or more short of the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours needed per night. In addition, 73 percent of 10th graders and 84 percent of 12th graders in FCPS were routinely getting less than seven hours of sleep on school nights and 17 percent and 26 percent of 10th and 12th grade students reported less than five hours of sleep per night, respectively.

Children’s National has an elite Sleep Medicine program, including four board-certified sleep medicine specialists. Children’s Pediatric Sleep Medicine Program is the only comprehensive sleep center in the Washington, DC area exclusively designed for children and adolescents.

Fairfax County School Board adopts budget while failing to reform the elementary school schedule

Last night the Fairfax County School Board  adopted the 2013-14 school year (FY 2014) Approved Budget of $2.5 billion, which includes compensation increases for employees and funds the final phase-in of mandated employee contributions to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS). The FY 2014 budget includes nearly 300 additional positions to address membership growth (projected to be 184,625 in FY 2014, an increase of 3,089 students) and student demographic changes. The FY 2014 Approved Budget has a 1.1 percent increase over the FY 2013 Approved Budget.

The budget, which takes effect July 1, includes a two percent market scale adjustment for all employees, effective January 1, 2014, as well as a three percent mandated salary adjustment to offset a three percent increase in the VRS employee contribution rate for those impacted participants.

In a separate motion, the board also directed the Superintendent to develop an FY 2015 Proposed Budget that includes compensation increases for employees, with step increases as the board’s preference. It’s interesting that the school board is attempting to make pledges about future actions. Although these promises can be broken, it would be nice to hear a similar pledge about providing more time in school for the elementary school students. The school board continues to duck and dodge its responsibility  to provide an adequate schedule for the younger students. The Monday early dismissal policy should be eliminated as soon as possible.

FCPS receives nearly 70 percent of its funding from Fairfax County; this year, the county transfer increased by 2 percent, bringing the total funding provided by the County to $1.7 billion.

The FY 2014 Approved Budget includes $21.7 million to address student membership growth and changes in student demographics, adds 5.0 school psychologist and 9.0 social worker positions, increases support for advanced academics and Young Scholars by $0.5 million, expands world languages to five additional elementary schools, expands FECEP (Family and Early Childhood Education Program) to serve more than 100 additional students using grant and Priority Schools Initiative funding, and increases funding for preventive maintenance by $1.6 million. Other adjustments include increases for homebound and multiagency services, adjustments for contractual increases, and savings from employee turnover, bus inspections, and utilities.

FCPS is receiving one-time state incentive funding of $6.3 million by providing the required 2 percent mid-year compensation increase to all employees. Excluding the incentive funding, state aid decreased by $3.3 million compared to FY 2013. This is a very poor way of providing assistance for local school districts. Funding from sales tax receipts is projected to increase by $9.1 million.

Some extra jobs in the school system could help students, staff, and families

For too long, the Fairfax County School Board members have avoided adding additional specialist teachers and/or paraprofessionals in the elementary schools as part of a reform to improve the program and schedule for students. Judicious hiring of additional staff members could finally allow elementary school students to have five full days of school each week. They could even have more than 10 minutes per day for recess while also having the amount of instructional time mandated by the Standards of Accreditation. Teachers could more planning time during the student day. Intelligent reform of the school schedule could also greatly help many parents who struggle to adjust their work hours or to pay for additional day care to cope with weekly Monday early dismissals.

So, let’s help students, staff, families, and indeed the national economy by adding needed positions in the schools.

“The main reason our economic recovery has been so weak is that, spooked by fear-mongering over debt, we’ve been doing exactly what basic macroeconomics says you shouldn’t do — cutting government spending in the face of a depressed economy,” Paul Krugman argues in the New York Times. “Workers, after all, are taxpayers too; if our debt obsession exiles millions of Americans from productive employment, it will cut into future revenues and raise future deficits.”

Although Fairfax is not considering cutting spending, it has made foot-dragging into an art form when it comes to avoiding targeted spending to fix a serious problem. Through good times and bad for more than two decades the Fairfax County School Board has practiced a false economy of refusing to spend a relatively small proportion of extra money for additional staff positions that would be a tremendous benefit to the elementary schools.

Kathy Smith stresses the need to consider student achievement goals

Yesterday the Fairfax County School Board discussed several proposals to reduce the workload of teachers. The Vienna, VA Patch has an excellent article by Erica R. Hendry on this work session. I posted this comment:

9:10 am on Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Listening to the discussion, I was very pleased to hear Kathy Smith remind her colleagues that they need to keep in mind the needs of the students as they evaluate issues relating to teacher workload. She also once again said, “We need to look at the elementary day.”
How true! The school board has procrastinated for years and years on this topic. By comparison, other proposals whiz along very speedily.Now that the board is paying close attention to teacher schedules and workloads, this is a perfect time to reform the overall schedule to benefit both teachers and students.
The report notes, “The board will discuss the topic, along with recommendations Pajardo and teachers associations reach together over the next two weeks, at its April 27 retreat.”
It is important to note that the cluster superintendents and principals will also be in the group reviewing those recommendations, as well as proposals put forth by principals.

In response to this comment, John Farrel asked, “exactly which proposal, that wasn’t initiated by Jack and the Gatehouse Gang, has whizzed along?

Here is my answer:

1:40 pm on Tuesday, April 9, 2013
The contrast between the respectful consideration given to the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Rights and Responsibilities (SR&R) this year and the avoidance of discussion of the recommendations of Time and Learning Task Force in 1996 is astounding. This year the school board held a work session to receive the SR&R committee report almost as soon as it was finished. Then yesterday they held another meeting to discuss staff recommendations. Believe it or not, in 1996 the Time and Learning Task Force report was completed February 2, but in response to organized pressure from employees, the school board delayed receiving the report until May, did not ask for a staff response, and dropped the issue like a hot potato. Some members of the current SR&R committee are disappointed that the staff did not agree with all of the recommendations–still getting any staff response at all is definitely progress.
At yesterday’s work session on teacher workload, the school board directed Phyllis Pajardo and the HR staff to meet with the stakeholders to review all of the recommendations of FCFT, FEA, and the principals even before these recommendations were presented as agenda items at a school board meeting. This topic of teacher schedules was covered by the Time and Learning Task Force. It is extremely frustrating to see a partial consideration of the topic of schedules being given “rocket docket” treatment, while the larger issues of the elementary school day are ignored.

More quality instructional time is essential

When the Time and Learning Task Force was formed in 1994, Superintendent Robert R. Spillane made the following remarks:

While no one is foolish enough to think that “more” is necessarily better, more instructional time—quality instructional time—is an indispensable element of raising academic standards and achievement levels for all students… The curriculum has exploded in recent years and the demands on schools have increased dramatically. Something has to give. I would rather see more time than less learning. I personally believe that implementing the recommendations of the Prisoners of Time report will enable us to make long overdue changes in the conditions and status of teaching and to strengthen the teaching profession. If we want better schools, for all kids and not just a few, we must give more time for teachers to teach and for children to master core academic subjects.

Even more additions have been made to the curriculum in the two decades since the Task Force was created, yet the amount of time that Fairfax County elementary school students are allowed to spend in school is the same now as it was in 1971: 30 hours and 50 minutes per week.