Model Reinvents Schedule to Add Instruction, Planning Time

What if schools could increase learning time by 30 percent without increasing the budget or adding hours to teachers’ workdays or work year?

Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit funded by the Ford Foundation, claims to do just that. In its recently released report, “Cost-effective Strategies for Extending Learning Time and Expanding Opportunity in K-12 Education” [], GSN says its model of “reinventing” the typical school schedule has improved student performance and teacher satisfaction in its two model public schools in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Denver.

Brooklyn Generation School, grades 9-12, and West Generation Academy, grades 6-12, have significantly increased student performance, the report says, by adopting the GSN model of adding instruction time to core subjects and career guidance. The model expands school time from the common six-and-one-half-hours per day, five days per week, 180 days per year to eight hours per day, five days per week, 200 days per year. That reduces the typical ten-week summer vacation to six weeks – but just for students. Teachers maintain a nine-month work schedule with staggered leave based on grouping teachers at the same grade level. No longer are teachers and students on a contiguous schedule, partly because students rotate through month-long career guidance twice a year, while teachers take a week of professional development, then three weeks of leave.

Developed in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers, GSN leaders say the model improves teacher satisfaction by lowering class sizes, reducing the number of classes per teacher and expanding planning time.

Like most major education policy changes, the GSN model is complicated, and it demands a radical shift in the typical school day. GSN leaders also report there are tradeoffs to using the model, including having less time when all the staff is working at the same time.

But at a time when teachers and students are desperate for more quality time in the school day, innovations in schedules, such as GSN’s, shouldn’t be ignored.


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 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…

Board of Supervisors should provide the funds requested by the school board

I disagree with those who say that the Fairfax County School Board’s request for an increase in the transfer of 5.7 percent from Fairfax County is overly ambitious. The Advertised Budget of $2.5 billion is a net increase of only 2.4 percent, or $59.4 million, from the FY 2014 Approved Budget. The school system needs at least this amount of money to cover enrollment growth, an increase in health insurance rates, an increase in contributions to the Virginia Retirement System, and to provide an adequate schedule for the elementary school students.

Today’s snow day is another reminder that the elementary school schedule in Fairfax is substandard. There have been several news reports about the new 10-minute limit for recess in Prince William County. Reporters have failed to note that Fairfax County has had a nominal limit of 10 minutes per day for recess for the past seven years. This schedule is inadequate and unrealistic. It is true that most students are allowed more than 10 minutes for recess. However, when this happens, the students are not getting the time required for the standard school day in the Standards of Accreditation. The time provided for the elementary school students is not sufficient. Fairfax should fix this problem by ending Monday early dismissals.

Although it is possible to implement full-day Mondays without additional cost, I think it would be preferable to provide additional funding to provide alternative planning time for the teachers. I believe that FCPS should provide a minimum of five hours of planning time per week within the student day for every full-time elementary school teacher. This increase of 2 ½ hours more than is now provided would compensate for eliminating the Monday afternoon planning time. This was the recommendation of the Time and Learning Task Force in 1996.

The funding for this additional staffing in the elementary schools could be provided by reallocating some of the money in the school board’s Advertised Budget. The Priority Schools Initiative could be eliminated for a savings of $4.6 million and the reduction in “needs-based” staffing could be increased by another $12 million or so.

This is money that could be reallocated from the budget with a 5.7 increase in the transfer. If the Board of Supervisors adopts County Executive Ed Long’s proposal for only a two percent increase in the transfer, that would make it very difficult to provide the additional staffing that could facilitate an acceptable elementary school schedule.

Providing an elementary school schedule which complies with the requirements of the Standards of Accreditation and also provides more than 10 minutes per day for recess is one of the fundamental responsibilities of both the Fairfax County School Board and the Board of Supervisors. It is a false economy and a risky strategy to provide a substandard schedule for elementary school students. This schedule needs to be fixed as soon as possible. Fairfax needs to stop Monday early dismissals and provide more recess time.

Garza listens to supporters of full-day Mondays

The final stop of Superintendent Karen Garza’s listening tour of Fairfax County was held at Lake Braddock Secondary School February 24. The Connection reports that half-day Mondays and the length of school days were among the concerns brought up by parents:

Lisa Daniel said at the meeting that she is concerned with instructional time in schools, especially due to standardized testing pressures.

“We’re trying to squeeze too much into too little time,” Daniel said of half-day Mondays for elementary school students in Fairfax County.

Michele Menapace, a former president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, also attended the meeting and reports that four of the 21 speakers supported full-day Mondays. “One of the speakers in favor of restoring full-day Mondays was a teacher, who said only 1 Monday a month is free for teacher planning time.  The other 3 Mondays are consumed by meetings or mandated activities that co-opt planning.”

Michele also reports that five of the speakers supported later start times and two speakers supported “more recess, less homework and/or more free play to encourage socialization, mediation, etc. (not to mention reducing stress.

“The other topics mentioned by more than one speaker:  less testing, improved autism instruction & better training for autism teachers, the school budget & CIP data.”

Parent criticizes Monday early dismissals

In a letter to the Fairfax Times, Lisa Daniels notes that most of the area’s public school districts have as many snow days and teacher workdays as Fairfax has. “Where Fairfax County goes beyond the pale is its half-day Mondays for elementary school students,” she said. “This decades-old practice of giving K-sixth-grade students a four-hour school day once a week instead of the usual 6.5-hour day comes as a shock to newcomers, but is quietly accepted by long-term residents as “teacher planning time.”

 I commented that not all long-time residents are complacent about this.

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.

Tonight I spoke in favor of better school schedules

Here are my notes for my testimony at the Fairfax County School Board’s public hearing on the FY 2015 Advertised Budget–

Provide Better School Schedules

 Provide later start times for high school students

Budget for the lowest cost option being studied by the consultants

Restructure the elementary school schedule

End the Monday early dismissal policy.

Provide a uniform school day of six hours and 40 minutes each day for students.

Don’t decrease the number of instructional assistants in the elementary schools, increase them. [The Proposed Budget gives an expenditure reduction of $2.4 million for 69 fewer IAs, including reduction in general education, class size increases and reduction in needs-based staffing in all grade levels.]

Increase the number of physical education teachers.

Give all students 90 minutes of P.E. per week.

Keep the current FLES teachers, but allow the classroom teachers to have planning time during the foreign language classes.

Give schools which do not have FLES the option of adding it to their schedule or adding 60 minutes of instruction by other specialists in subjects such as math, reading, or science.

Provide a minimum of 5 hours of planning time per week within the student day for every full-time teacher.

Cut some costs

Eliminate the Priority Schools Initiative ($4.6 million)

Increase the reduction in “needs-based” staffing by another $12 ½ million. FCPS spends approximately $51.5 million on needs-based staffing. The Proposed Budget reduces this staffing by 164.8 positions, for a savings of $12.5 million.

Total reduction in costs compared to the Proposed Budget = $17 million

Let’s apply this savings to improving our school schedules.

Fairfax County schools’ budget request is necessary and can be improved

Superintendent Karen K. Garza wrote an excellent letter to the Washington Post: Fairfax County schools’ budget request is necessary.

However, there are some even more crucial items that need to be included in the budget. Providing an adequate schedule is the basic foundation of the program for the schools. The elementary school students should be given an adequate amount of time in school by providing full-day Mondays. Also it is counterproductive to start schools before the high school students are alert and ready to learn.

These two items are so fundamental that other budget items should be eliminated or reduced. Fairfax could save $4.3 million be ending the Priority Schools Initiative, which was always intended to be a short term project anyway. Also, Fairfax spends a total of $50.1 million in needs-based staffing. There is no point in spending this much in additional staffing while refusing to allocate the staffing in an efficient manner in order to provide full-day Mondays. Currently all of the elementary schools have fragmented and inadequate schedules. There is no excuse for spending this much money on additional staffing without providing a normal amount of time in the school week for the elementary school students. Fairfax also needs to provide this time to ensure compliance with the requirements in the Standards of Accreditation for the standard school day.

Although it would be possible to eliminate Monday early dismissals by simply changing the bus schedules to the Tuesday through Friday schedule, it would be preferable to have additional staffing.

Switching to full-day Mondays is the single most important priority to provide an improved school experience for all elementary students. It is far more important that any incremental advantage that is perceived from adding additional staff here and there without an overall plan.

Correction: I added “million” to the $50.1 figure in the third paragraph. 1/25/14  10:09 p.m.

Post does not understand how tight the Fairfax budget is

The Washington Post says Fairfax schools must get real about their budget.

It’s easy to admonish Fairfax school officials “to find workable solutions to the genuine budget challenges they face,” but it’s not so easy to explain how the school system should cope with tighter budget constraints. If the schools don’t receive the requested 5.7 percent increase in county funding, the Fairfax County School Board will be less likely to attempt to provide reasonable schedules for the students.  Superintendent Garza refrained from asking for additional money to cover the increased transportation costs that are likely to be needed to provide later high school start times, a goal which the Post has endorsed as “sensible reform.”

Self-imposed budget constraints have also led to procrastination over the past 25 years in fixing the dysfunctional elementary school schedule, which dismisses the students two hours early every Monday.  This absurd economizing has led to a situation where students are limited to a recess period of ten minutes per day. It’s true that many students have recess for 20 or 30 minutes a day, but then they don’t receive the instructional hours required by the Standards of Accreditation.  It’s time for Fairfax to set a schedule that complies with state standards.

Although it should be kept in mind that the elementary schedule could be changed at no additional cost, it would be preferable to have additional staffing. This would benefit the children and allow teachers to have more planning time within the student day.