It was disappointing to see Manatee County School Board members Harry Kinnan, Bob Gause and Barbara Harvey approve the upcoming academic schedule that included the return of the controversial early release Wednesdays, in which students are dismissed nearly two hours early so that coordinated teacher professional development can be planned.
As a parent, I've never been a fan of early release day and when I moved from Sarasota to Manatee County, I hoped it would be a short-lived experiment. The school district defends the policy by asserting that the few minutes added to each school day actually end up lengthening the week by 15 minutes. But that's not a very effective way to examine it. The time lost in one horrifically-inefficient day each and every week could never be effectively made up by extra minutes at the end of each day.
The schools are also required to feed students lunch on those days and the result is a logistical nightmare in which accomplishing the cafeteria obligations takes center stage. Kids are sent to eat as early as 9 a.m. Classes are shortened and therefore tests are almost never scheduled. In my son's school, they can't even check books out of the library on Wednesday – too much going on. The many students I asked about the schedule loved getting off early, but unanimously agreed that the day is wasted. “We never do anything,” was a common response.
It's also disappointing that there is no consideration given to the weekly schedule. For example, last year, the first full week after students returned from winter break included the MLK holiday on Monday, early release on Wednesday and an in-service day Friday – resulting in barely half a week of school. It's very difficult to start a new semester and introduce new material that way, so you either teach and expect minimal retention or you ease back into the groove and very little work gets done.
Why the district doesn't do a better job of scheduling in-service days on weeks when no federal holidays exist, I don't know. But it would seem elementary that if we really decided we needed early release Wednesdays, there would at the very least be a policy of not employing them on weeks that were otherwise shortened.
The school district cited a survey that they said showed about half of the parents in the district approved of the early release policy, though they acknowledged that the methodology (a robo-call to the house in the middle of the day) was flawed and perhaps not representative. As one parent who wrote TBT pointed out, the parents most likely to respond were those in a single-income household (and therefore not at work in the middle of the day), who had less of a reason to find logistical difficulties in such a schedule.
Working parents already find it difficult to arrange child care, work hours, and transportation when children are released a few hours before the end of the typical work day – an antiquated schedule that harkens back to the pre-globalization days when average American families could still afford a stay-at-home parent. But push that release until midday and even the most creative or well-supported parent can find great difficulty. When you further consider the aforementioned scheduling snafus like the half-week, it is not hard to imagine the challenge in finding employment that is tolerant of such needs – especially in this economy.
Child care is available, but ask any parent who utilizes such services if there is a shortage of quality childcare in Manatee County and you will get a resounding yes. The better facilities often have long waiting lists and big price tags that are not in sync with average wages in the area – and they charge extra to utilize their services because of early release, a hidden tax the policy imposes on those parents. So again, those who are blessed with available family members, the financial resources to afford quality care, or are part of the shrinking class of local families that earn enough to exist as a single-income household, only have to look at the academic aspects of the policy. But for the others, it can be a serious financial drain or quality of life issue, when they are forced to put their children into less than desirable facilities in order to pay the rent.
Finally, the main argument in favor of the schedule – that it's for the teachers – seems thin. I spoke with nearly a dozen teachers before writing this column and every single one of them spoke negatively about the policy for reasons ranging from academic challenges to seeing no value in the training offered to them on those days. What was more disturbing, was that not a single one would speak on the record for fear of retaliation. The district's own numbers when discussing administrative staff workload during the budget talks, suggested that as many as 10 percent of teachers were "under investigation" at any time.
There seems to be a climate of fear spreading among educators that if they are perceived as non-supportive of the proposed curriculum and policies, they will be transferred to a less desirable school or worse yet, their contract will not be renewed. This is perhaps greater reason for concern, especially considering the message being sent by Tallahassee – that we need to make it easier for teachers to be shown the door. If the very people who are educating our children are not comfortable voicing their opinion, we are denied the most valid and relevant perspective and cannot expect the best results.
Off the record, teachers were candid, referring to the policy as a “giant waste of time” and to many of the programs offered as “insulting.” What's worse, there was a feeling among some of them that the entire purpose of the policy was to justify otherwise unnecessary administrative positions. They described sophomoric presentations on basic concepts that offered little in the way of useful information to educated and experienced instructors. Over and again, teachers complained that if the time were to be used effectively, they'd be given free reign to grade papers, work on lesson plans or take continuing education courses of their choosing online.
When it is this difficult to find merit in a publicly-funded program, while looking at it from all of the angles, there is cause for concern. From my examination, the best thing that can be said about the policy is that some unaffected parents don't have a problem with it, and that it has support from those who administer it. That's not a very strong case. If Manatee County Schools cannot find a way to accomplish professional development with a traditional schedule like so many other more successful districts have, maybe it's time to start rethinking more than just this policy.
The climate regarding education in this state and its obvious preference toward privatization and charter schools should have public school districts shaking in their boots, fighting tooth and nail to see that public education as we know it even continues to exist. Instead, it seems so mired in its own bureaucracy that it might be doomed to arming its opponents with better arguments than they could ever come up with one their own as to why that should be the case – and taking down one of the great pillars of our society's success in the process. As taxpayers, we are the ones who empower them to take such actions, meaning we'll have no one to blame but ourselves should that be the case.
Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. An archive of his columns is available here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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