School Committees Deliberate Half Days

Joint Tri-Town School Committee members debated on January 9 the elimination of professional development-related early release days during the school year, with Chairperson Sharon Hartley pushing for a change in the half-day policy and asking committee members if half days are productive or if they are a waste of resources.

“A lot of money goes into bringing students to school every day,” said Hartley. “Are [half days] meaningful to us?”

Eliminating half days seemed like a “no-brainer” to Mattapoisett School Committee Chairperson James Higgins. “It doesn’t seem like the most effective way to learn.”

Superintendent Doug White’s philosophy was that breaks in the school week result in breaks in education, and students benefit more from whole, consistent weeks of uninterrupted learning.

He proposed the following scenario for the 2014/2015 school calendar year: Take the two professional development no-school days from November and January, move them to the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, and give the students that Wednesday off. This would result in one whole week off for Thanksgiving break and two additional uninterrupted weeks during the school year.

During the PD-half days in September and March, substitute teachers would be employed to allow teacher “teams” to go for PD in morning and afternoon shifts, so that students could remain in school for the full day rather than being released early.

“Doug and I do not agree,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Elise Frangos. She explained that having PD days separated by a few months, rather than having the two sessions back to back, allows teachers to learn new techniques, try them out, and then reassess them at the subsequent session. She said the PD would be more like a two-day conference and could be overwhelming with information.

“I think you incur a different kind of fatigue,” said Frangos.

“We can always change it back if things don’t work, “said White, who successfully tried a similar structure in the past in a different school district, and he proposed that the district give it a try for a year. White acknowledged, however, that he has not received much support for the change from the staff members to whom he has spoken so far.

“I’m not surprised that it hasn’t been accepted with open arms,” said Rochester School Committee Member Robin Rounseville. “Anyway, it should be what is best for the children, not the staff.”

Rounseville questioned whether adding substitute teachers to complete the full school day would even be worthwhile.

“Does learning suffer in that regard?” she asked. “It’s a lot of things to consider.”

Members tossed around ideas and opinions, but took no vote – not without first assessing the cost of adding substitute teachers to cover the half days and receiving feedback from parents and faculty. The committee will vote on the half-day policy, as well as accept the 2014/2015 school calendar, at the next meeting on March 13.

Also during the meeting, Marion School Committee Member Jay Pateakos suggested that the joint committees consider televising their meetings in the future.

“I think that we owe it as elected officials to be televised,” said Pateakos, “but that’s just me.”

Pateakos felt the only disadvantage to the group would be holding meetings in a different room downstairs, farther from the restrooms. Other members, however, strongly opposed televising the meetings, saying democracy would suffer because of camera shyness.

“I didn’t sign up to be on TV,” said Mattapoisett School Committee Member Nick Decas. “I signed up to serve on a committee.” He also doubts that citizens would even watch it.

“I might talk less if I’m on TV,” said Higgins.

Old Rochester Regional School Committee Chairperson James O’ Brien chimed in, saying that by the time he arrives at evening committee meetings, he has been “at it all day,” and if the public wants to know what is going on during meetings they should “rise up and drive over, or become an elected official on this board.”

O’ Brien stated that there is always talk about “reaching out to the community,” but, “You know what?” he asked. “Bring the community here.” He pointed out that, despite a multimillion-dollar budget, no parents were present at the meeting that evening.

Hartley, speaking against televising the meetings, added that oftentimes when meetings are televised, certain officials tend to perform for the camera while others are inhibited. She declared that she was old-fashioned in her opinion of democracy and that a ‘couch potato’ democracy, like what televised meetings would encourage, was ineffective.

Playing devil’s advocate, ORR School Committee Member Tim Scholz said the top reason for televising is transparency.

“With no cameras…behavior can sometimes be very bad,” said Scholz. He said cameras would keep officials in check.

“It’s obvious where you guys are going,” said Pateakos. He said he just wanted to give the public the option of televised meetings.

“There’s a population of people … the elderly and the disabled … that can’t come,” said Frangos, in favor of televising. “That transparency would be optimal … Not all of our constituency can come out at night.”

“I don’t think there is one thing that isn’t transparent here,” said Decas.

Pateakos requested that the committees refrain from voting that night and wait until the March meeting to take any action.

Earlier in the meeting, White gave a mid-year review presentation on the progress of the district’s education goals so far. According to the new Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) evaluation system, the district must come into compliance by June 2014, which White stated will happen as most of the benchmarks of the goals have already been met or are in progress.

The goals focus on education evaluation, safety and security of schools, technology, supervision, and writing improvement.

By Jean Perry


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