A majority of District 65 School Board members said on Feb. 19 that they would support seven “early release days” for professional development next year, which is two more than this year but two fewer than the administration wanted. The debate presented difficult questions on how to provide time for professional development without disrupting classroom instruction and unduly impacting working parents’ schedules.

In a revised calendar presented to the Board on Feb. 19, the administration proposed nine “early-release days,” on which students would attend school in the morning, and be dismissed one and one-half hours early in the afternoon so teachers could attend professional development courses provided by the District. This school year’s calendar (2007-08) provides for five early-release days.

Parents’ Concerns

Rhonda Present, a parent representative on the District’s calendar committee, said, “The [proposed] increase to nine early dismissals blatantly disregards (or shall I say, dismisses) the needs and concerns of families in our community.” Ms. Present said the calendar affects working parents’ schedules and childcare arrangements and detracts from the amount of time spent on instruction in the classroom.

Working parents who opposed the increase to nine days said they have to skip work or make childcare arrangements when their children are dismissed early from school. Becky Kass said the proposed calendar places a hardship on working parents, scheduling only 17 five full-day weeks of school in the 41-week year.

Jane Grover, a District 65 parent, said at an earlier meeting that five early-release days was a “tipping point” for many parents. She added that many parents have told her scheduling early-release days on Fridays would be less disruptive to their working schedules than Wednesdays, as proposed in the calendar.

In the last week more than 230 parents have signed an on-line petition urging the Board to adopt a calendar that increases the number of five full-day weeks of instruction and gives the teachers the professional development they need without adding more early- release days.

Need For Professional Development

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said on Feb. 19 that the early-release days were important to enable the District to provide training to teachers on three major initiatives: Differentiation and Enrichment; the Unified System of Delivery of Instruction, including Response to Intervention; and Technology. He said professional development would also be provided in the areas of leadership, the curriculum, instructional practices, classroom management and environment, and cultural sensitivity.

In addition to the early release days, the District would provide two “institute days” which are two full days of training before school begins, and two “in-service” days in which the afternoons will be used for teacher meetings or for school improvement planning.

Dr. Murphy said comprehensive and continuous professional development is essential to successfully implement the District’s new programmatic initiatives. He said the literature says that professional development is the key to improving academic improvement.

“I understand that parents say this is a hardship,” said Dr. Murphy. “But they’re getting it done in other places.”

Ms. Grover challenged Dr. Murphy, saying, “My gut tells me the single most important factor [in student achievement] is instruction and teaching. And the more the better…We have some extraordinary educators in this District, in the schools. And I really want my children to spend more time with their teachers, rather than less time. It’s difficult for me to see how student achievement improves as instruction time shrinks.”

Majority Goes With Professional Development

Katie Bailey, Bonnie Lockhart and Mary Rita Luecke opposed nine early-release days. Ms. Bailey said if nine early-release days were included in the calendar, there would only be, by her count, 13 weeks with five full days of school in the school year. She said she thought consistency and a routine were important for both parents and students.

“I find nine a little over the top,” Ms. Luecke said. “There’s only so much you can absorb in a year. I think we should stick with what we’ve got – five.” She added it would be helpful to hear what the District Educators Council (the teachers’ union) thought about nine early-release days.

Ms. Lockhart agreed with keeping the number at five. “I feel to go from three to five to seven to nine is too much. I feel there are other ways the education can be done,” she said. “I think we as a Board need to be sensitive to what we’re hearing from the community.”

“I would like for us in the future to increase the school day to compensate for the loss of instruction time. Other districts are doing this…and in some ways we’re behind.” –Andrew Pigozzi, District 65 School Board Member

A majority of the Board, however, said they would go along with at least seven early-release days.

Board President Mary Erickson supported nine, saying, “I think we need to have a lot of professional development to get some of the things we want to get done, done.” She explained, “I want to see the work of the differentiation and enrichment committee really take hold. I really want to make sure there’s plenty of time to get these new programs off the ground when they’re developed…so every teacher knows what the District is aiming for and how to implement these new ideas in their classroom.”

Andrew Pigozzi said, “If our goal is higher achievement, if we truly want to close the gap, if we want to bring up the lower achievers, then we have to pay the price somewhere. We have to improve what we’re doing if we’re going to expect a better result. And the way to do that is with additional training.”

Jerome Summers supported nine early-release days, but said, “I would like to see a way to make that hour and a half productive for children without burdening parents and so we could send the children home at the same time.”

Keith Terry suggested the District use an e-learning model or another model for professional development. He also questioned what would happen if the District did not have nine early-release days.

Dr. Murphy said, “We would not be able to put together an instructional program that’s as robust as we would like to put together and that we would be able to put together with more professional development time. One of the single most important factors in school improvement is professional development time.”

Mr. Terry said he would go along with seven days.

Long-Term Solutions

Several Board members proposed that the District consider making strategic changes in future years to create time for professional development.

Ms. Bailey said the District should consider implementing a model like the one used by Oak Park. “I kind of like one a week, having an early release once a week like Oak Park and Madison, but, of course, what they do is make their days longer and kind of make up for it,” she said. “The other thing Oak Park does, as Rhonda Present mentioned, is they do this wrap-around programming, where on early-release days there’s chess clubs, there’s Spanish clubs.”

Mr. Pigozzi supported this approach. “I would like for us in the future to increase the school day to compensate for the loss of instructional time,” he said. “Other districts are doing this…and in some ways we’re behind.”

Ms. Erickson suggested the Board consider reducing the number of scheduled holidays, such as Pulaski Day and Columbus Day, which would increase the number of five-day weeks that she said many families prefer. She acknowledged that this might mean the school year would end sooner unless the District could find additional funds to add attendance days.

At the Board’s strategic planning meeting on Feb. 23, consultant Bill Attea said many school districts are looking at extending the school day. He also suggested that professional training models provide for “competence exits,” and if a teacher demonstrated competency in an area, the District would not need to require the teacher to keep attending training sessions in that area.

The proposed calendar for next year has 176 student days, the minimum required under State law. Dr. Murphy said in an earlier meeting that the cost of adding an extra day, for either instruction or staff development, would be about $220,000. The District is currently projecting a budget deficit of about $1 million for next year unless new revenues are found or cuts made.

Next Steps

The calendar committee is continuing to meet. Ms. Present told the RoundTable that parents, teachers and administrators are trying to find some common ground to enable teachers to receive professional training and not to have so many chopped up days in the calendar. She said the calendar committee is scheduled to meet again on March 5.

Ms. Present said she plans to give the Board at the working Board meeting scheduled for March 4 a copy of the on-line petitions signed by parents. In a memo dated Feb. 15, Dr. Murphy said the plan was to present the final calendar to the Board for approval on March 17.

For future years, Dr. Murphy said the District needs to set its priorities. “We need to establish our priorities, what we’re going to focus on in this District so that with the professional time we have, we need to make sure we target it and focus it in the most productive manner,” he said. “We are not going to be able to do everything, every time something comes up.”