Almost any teacher will tell you that they’ve got more on their plates today than they did 15 or 20 years ago. New initiatives, tests, teacher evaluations — and then there’s the new state mandate that every student graduate with a “proficiency-based diploma.”
That means that many teachers are now rethinking how they work, and that takes time. More schools are now trying to create weekly “early release days” to give teachers more time to work together, but some parents are aren’t happy.
English teacher Kristen Vernace says that a few years ago, finding time to talk to other teachers was nearly impossible. She’d try to sneak in time during lunch or a free period.
“It’s so short,” she says. “Kids are knocking on the door, and you felt like you were just trying to stay afloat. Like, ‘OK, when are we going to give the test? Or when will the essay be due?’ That you didn’t actually get into the actual lesson planning and unit planning.”
Vernace says teachers need to talk with each other — constantly — in order to work together to meet new state mandates on teacher evaluation and proficiency-based diplomas. Administrators agree.
“We recognize we don’t want to get to 11th grade and say, ‘Oh dear, we have these major gaps,’” says Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin.
Grondin says in her district, teachers have been clamoring for years to get more time to talk about the best ways to help students.
“You need to sit down, have a conversation,” she says. “Really talk about the content. The curriculum. The expectations. What’s the pacing to get a student to graduation?”
This year, the district moved to do something about it. It proposed a plan to add 13 early release days next year — about two afternoons a month where teachers can gather together and talk about lesson plans, curriculum and data.
An analysis by Maine Public Radio found that dozens of school districts across Maine have already adopted similar approaches to the school day. The structures vary, from a few shortened days per year to early release days every single week, all devoted to professional development.
But the district’s initiative has been met with pushback. Earlier this year, parents packed into the Auburn City Council Chambers to tell Grondin and the school board about why they felt the shortened school days aren’t good for high schoolers.
Parent Claire Nacinovich says students would now be let out before noon with minimal supervision. She says that puts working parents like her in the lurch.
“School, I think, needs to take that into consideration,” she says. “That I often have to rearrange my work schedule to carpool. The reality for older kids is that day care isn’t a good solution, because they’re too old for day care.”
And parents like Matthew Kovacevich say the new schedule will also affect how much time students have to learn.
“For me, personally, it comes down to instructional time,” he says. “You really just can’t touch that. You just can’t.”
The district says it can fix that by reducing the time that students walk between classes.
But while Auburn tries to strike a balance between teacher development and student instruction, some other schools say they have have found new ways to do it. At Eliot’s Marshwood High School, near the New Hampshire border, teachers gather in front of a computer to analyze and compare their lessons, to make sure every student is learning the same content.
Every week, these teachers are given nearly two hours to do this. But Superintendent Mary Nash says the process of finding time took a long time to figure out.
“So it took us a whole year, as a district, of conversation, to figure out how we did that,” she says.
But two years ago, the district came up with a solution: to completely redesign its school day. The district decided to expand the school day — from kindergarten through 12th grade — from six-and-a-half hours to seven. Then, on Thursdays, high schoolers would come in late, and middle and elementary students would leave early.
Nash says the new approach gives teachers a 100-minute block every week to work together. And it actually gives students more time in the classroom.
“And it just escalated our work,” Nash says. “It accelerated it.”
And to create supervision for younger students, Curriculum Director Heidi Early-Hersey says the district designed an after-school “learning lab” where ed techs work with students to help with reading and math. About a quarter of the school’s kids go every week.
“They try to provide some additional literacy, numeracy experiences for kids,” she says. “Then parents can pick up at regular time.”
The district says this change required time, money, negotiations with the local teachers union and educators who were willing to put in extra work. But Jennifer Davis, with the National Center for Time and Learning, says more schools are expanding their school day like this and seeing results.
“Many of the highest performing charter schools in the country actually operate 50-60 percent more learning hours for students,” she says. “And you’re seeing very impressive educational gains for students in those settings compared to students in traditional settings.”
In Auburn, the district tabled the proposal in May. But it will keep talking about how to get teachers professional development. Because as the deadline to meet new state mandates gets closer, educators say they’ll need all the time they can get.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.