Teacher Training Days Provoke School Board Debate

School calendar forces board to pit classroom time against urgent need to help teachers adjust to changing academic standards

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The number of times students get sent home each month so teachers can get more training prompted a revealing school board discussion last week.

The normally routine approval of the 2012-13 school calendar prompted board president Barbara Underwood to fret about whether parents will question if those half day in-service classes chew up too much time shuffling kids around before the training sessions actually start.

“We’re losing eight days of instructional time” to in-service training, said board member Rory Huff.

Generally, the district splits those hours into half days, since the district still gets paid its per-student fee from the state for half days, while it has to extend the school year if it dismisses class for a full day of training.

But Underwood worried that club meetings, bus shuffles and lunch breaks sometimes means that even if the students go home at 11 or 12, the in-service training sessions don’t start until 1 or 2 — limiting the value of the half-day approach.

“Couldn’t we do full day trainings?” she asked.

“We could,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien, “but we wouldn’t get funded.”

The school calendar includes one or two half days of training time each month. In addition, the district gives up about seven days annually for AIMS testing, the graduation test of basic skills students take repeatedly as they progress.

O’Brien said the training days this coming year could prove crucial, since the district has agreed to adopt federally approved “common core standards” for academic classes. Those standards offer a detailed list of what concepts and knowledge students should master at each grade level. For the first time, the nationally grounded standards will allow a direct comparison of schools in different states, while bolstering both basic skills and critical thinking.

To shift to all-day training sessions, teachers would have to agree to add work days to their contracts without any extra pay.

“That would be a tough road to go down,” said O’Brien. Teachers have faced almost stagnant pay for more than three years while coping with added duties, larger classes and the loss of a state-funded stipend for extra training that boosted pay by 10 or 20 percent for many teachers.

“If you don’t take the time for teachers to get the common core standards wired in the next two years, we would fall off the cliff academically,” said O’Brien.

As the common core standards phase into the schools, districts will face increasingly dire consequences if students don’t progress — especially the weakest students. Schools that get a “D” three years running under a new state grading system face the threat of a state or federal takeover. Rim Country Middle School already got a “D” in the first year of the new ratings, although this year amounted to a dry run for the new rating system.

Board member Matt Van Camp said the training sessions would yield strong results that would make up for the time students miss in class.

“If you create a teacher that is more efficient and productive, you’ll gain the benefits. The better the teacher, the more instruction occurs.”

O’Brien said “the game is changing here and we want to get out front. If we wait, it’ll hit us like a train.”

Board member Kim Pound wondered how families have coped with finding their children out of school and perhaps unsupervised sometimes two days a month. “Has this been a burden on parents?” he asked.

“In elementary school, yes,” said O’Brien.

Underwood said some parents have complained to her that it can take an hour or two after kids get released before the teacher training sessions actually start.

“It was a parent that brought it up: If you’re allowing kids to go home, then the in-service should start promptly.”

That launched a rambling discussion with various principals in the audience about the reason for the delays in the start of the training sessions.

However, Pound finally said,“I would hope that our principals can handle this. I don’t think we want to micromanage their time. I don’t want to sit here and say: ‘by one o’clock you’d better be in your classes.’”

O’Brien conceded that the calendar poses many difficult tradeoffs, between instructional time and things like testing and training.

“It’s one of those things where the board can never declare victory,” he said.

He added that middle school and high school teachers generally need more training time, since the complexity of their schedules makes it much harder to find times when they can all work together.

“At the secondary level, that time together is so rare — it’s very difficult for them to cross paths. Elementary teachers have many other times during the week when they can work together.”

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