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School Calendar Woes—You do the Math

For the second year in a row, a storm wreaked havoc with Wilton’s school year. Columnist Heather Borden Herve joins other parents who want school and town officials to consider making a few changes—but on one option, school administrators say, ‘No.’

I love my kids, but I want them back in school already.

It’s not because I don’t want to spend time with them—I do. I just prefer it to be during non-school hours. But for the second year in a row, we’ve been “blessed” with an overabundance of time with our children when they were actually supposed to be in school. 

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, our kids have already lost six days this year; adding insult to injury, this was followed immediately by no school on Election Day. Once again, to make up for days lost due to inclement weather, we’re potentially facing a longer school year or shortened vacations—and oddly enough, we have to consider this before we’re even one-third of the way through the school year.

In fact, as of this, our 12th week of school, there have only been five weeks that the kids went to school for the full five days so far (after Sandy and all the religious and federal holidays).

That’s a lot of interrupted learning time. Those six days have serious impact, whether you’re a beginning reader who needs cumulative consistency to develop literacy skills, or a high school teen whose in-school time is so important, they are often penalized half a letter grade for missing a day of class and snow days can delay sending transcripts to colleges.

When our curriculum is geared toward “teaching to the test,” every minute students are in the classroom counts in order to wring out a bit of teaching beyond the test.

And it’s not even winter yet. Anyone want to place bets on how many more snow days we’ll get this year? Considering the white stuff on the ground today, merely one week and change after Sandy, it doesn’t look good. I really do like Superintendent Gary Richards very much, but I’d prefer not to hear his voice so frequently on the other end of the phone. I bet he feels the same way about having to make those robo calls to me too.

But lo and behold, just when we finally get the kids back in the classroom, next week’s school calendar shows they’ll have reduced time to actually learn while they’re there.

Beginning November 14, the students will have six straight half-days at school before Thanksgiving break. Why?  Parent-teacher conferences, which means two more partial weeks, less in-class learning time, and more inconsistency. From past anecdotal and first-hand experience, I know the time kids spend in class those days is often less-focused work time; with snack, specials and “Mom, we watched a video today!” time, we’re compounding the lost days of Sandy with less quality education.

Conferences—what should be changed now, but won’t be.

In the last several days, an email campaign from parents to the Board of Education and the superintendent went viral. Many parents pushed the board and Dr. Richards to consider postponing conferences. I’ve spoken to several parents who are upset about the lost time, and want the administration to make changes to get back some of those lost days. One such Wilton parent is Carrie Tobias.

“To me it’s two things. It’s getting rid of these half days. And it’s encouraging the school board to be more flexible and more creative in finding solutions. Clearly, the weather is changing and we’re going to keep dealing with this situation,” she told me, adding that several surrounding school districts figured out how to bring students back for school on Election Day despite originally scheduling it as a  day off.

Wednesday evening, Dr. Richards posted a letter to parents on the schools’ Edline website in response to the many emails. He explained why, despite “fully appreciat[ing] the expressed concerns about resuming a normal schedule…we need to ‘stay the course’ at this time and proceed with parent-teacher conference days as scheduled.” The letter said administrators understand the parents’ frustrations and did take the matter seriously. Richards wrote that they were unable to open schools on Election Day because of a request from CT’s Secretary of State; the letter also stated that the issues will be addressed as they plan for the 2013-14 school year.

The overriding theme of the letter is that parent-teachers conferences are important and it explained why school officials think they shouldn’t be cancelled. But that’s missing the point many parents are trying to make.

No one is suggesting that conferences aren’t valuable or important; it’s clear they are both. But perhaps we could find another option to talk about how our children are learning at a better time that doesn’t interfere with them doing the actual learning. Here are a few alternative ideas to start off the conversation: 

  • Hold conferences on Election Day. It’s currently a working “professional day” for teachers, so perhaps it’s a good alternative for conferences instead. The Weston school district originally scheduled their conferences on Election Day, but coincidently, decided post-Sandy that bringing the kids into school for in-classroom learning met educational objectives more directly than talking to parents.
  • Hold conferences after school. My son’s third grade teacher scheduled her own parent-teacher conferences in early October to find out from parents what they wanted her to know about their child. She was able to meet with every student’s parents in a week of after-school meetings, without impacting any time in the classroom. That’s also how they did it when I was in school, so why can’t we do that now?
  • Hold fewer conference half-days.  There are currently five conference days. Sometimes, teachers are able to schedule all their conferences on the first four days, leaving the fifth day clear. At the very least, perhaps we could aim to limit the number of half days to three?

I spoke with Bruce Likly, the chairman of the BOE, to express my opinion about the issue. He said the Board received emails from “several dozens” of parents about it. He stressed that the ultimate decisions about school closings and the calendar are technically up to Dr. Richards and his principals.

Likly was very receptive to discussing it. “Believe me, as a parent I hear and feel [what you’re saying], and I hear it and feel it as a board member. The Board challenged the superintendent pretty persistently, to look for options and alternatives to address parents’ concerns, and to look at the pros and cons of not only putting kids back in school on Election Day, but also of eliminating or delaying the conferences.”

He said administrators did weigh things very carefully before saying no. “I respect the fact that Dr. Richards and the principals have felt and heard the parents’ pressure. Quite honestly they’re making a hard decision that will create more heat for them, but they’ll take that heat because they feel it’s the right decision for the kids of Wilton. I really respect that because they were pushed hard. They were standing up saying, ‘I hear you but we think this is the right thing for your kids.’ That’s part of the reason we all moved to Wilton. We have a top performing school district because we have good educators, and we have to respect their position as professionals.”

Election Day and keeping schools open

This year and last has shown us just how valuable each day of school is. I wish the administration had been more flexible about adjusting the schedule and had called students back to school on Tuesday after the six-day Sandy break.

My friend, Carrie, put it this way: “When school is cancelled, Wilton parents are expected to change their schedule on a moment’s notice, within an hour to find alternate child care, and yet the district cannot do the same for us. I find that arrogant.”

Unfortunately, the decision about Election Day 2012 has come and gone. But turning attention to the long term, how can we make future Election Days an in-school day. Can we look at an alternative plan for moving polling places to other sites in Wilton that won’t interfere with student in-school days?

What about having the polls at Comstock? At Trackside? At the Wilton Y? At Town Hall? At WEPCO? There are other alternative locations in town that could accommodate the traffic, parking, and polling facilities outside of three Wilton schools, and that are centrally located.

This decision is something that the Board of Selectmen would need to review, in consultation with the Registrars and the BOE. But the time is now to start making that change happen.

Like politics, we’ve got to look for compromise, and better collaboration.

The administrators—especially Dr. Richards—don’t have easy jobs. It can be rough-going to make difficult calls like this, knowing that many people won’t be happy. I know their intentions are in the right place, and they’re smart educators who truly believe they are making choices in the best interest of educating our children.

But…

In the words of the administration, one of the benefits of conferences is to “promote the involvement of parents in their child’s education as they provide parents with the opportunity to talk directly with their child’s teacher.” It’s ironic that, in the aim of promoting collaborative talk between parents and educators in the learning process, at least on this issue the administration isn’t integrating what they’re hearing from many parents who believe what’s in the best interest of their own children—recovering lost school days with actual classroom time.

So, how can your voice be heard on these (and other) topics?

“I do want people to know that their input is critical, and I’m going to do everything in my power to listen to it,” Likly said. “But unfortunately sometimes I feel like my hands are tied in how I respond. If it comes into us, it’s not going to fall on deaf ears.”

Likly strongly encouraged parents to write emails letting the BOE and superintendent know how they feel, and to come to Board meetings—the next one is on November 20, at 6:00 pm in the WHS Professional Library, 395 Danbury Road, 2nd floor. There is opportunity for the public to speak to the board at the beginning and end of every meeting, and they are always eager to hear from parents.

Editor's Note: The November 20 meeting's start time was changed to 6 p.m., according to Bruce Likly.

Connecticut15 December 02, 2012 at 12:04 PM
I have known of a few teachers who have made it difficult to meet with a student or parents when requested. Alternatively, on a some occasions, they have been a no-show. Of course, things happen and people including parents and students are busy. One parent/teacher meeting was scheduled for 8:45 am and then with little notice and no input the teacher unilaterally rescheduled it for 7:15 am. Unprepared, she was surprised that the parents showed up. This was not respectful but was indicative of how the year would proceed.
Connecticut15 December 02, 2012 at 12:09 PM
Perhaps a closer look at the teachers' contracts are in order. Teachers have a universal contract and then may have a more personal one, especially if they are an instructional leader or have other responsibilities. It appears that the last contract stated that teachers are required to be available, working, a total of 1.5 hours in some combination before and after school . There may be other presiding conditions that regulate conference times, meetings, administrative meetings. They are entitled to various periods throughout the day free of work or classroom instruction. It may be that the only way to accommodate conference availabilities is during the work day and not have them extend well beyond the 1.5 hours in the contract.
Connecticut15 December 02, 2012 at 12:15 PM
Conference times are important check points. Going beyond November for them may put students and their learning at risk. In fact, doesn't 3 months after school begins for a check point seem a bit long? We have learned of students who were struggling with test/assessment results confirming it, but the parents were not made aware until November conferences. We would hope that teachers would not wait until then to alert parents so that they could work together toward addressing the students' challenges, but that was not the case. Time was wasted and the student's confidence and skill sets were negatively affected.
Connecticut15 December 02, 2012 at 12:21 PM
To all parents of elementary school students, please make certain that your child's tests/quizzes/assessments come home for you to review. Unless those items come home, you will not be aware of what areas if any your child may need more focus. Yes, there was a time at Miller/Driscoll where the decision was made that teachers were not to send home test/quiz/assessments - they said they did not want the parents to know what the students were not learning in the classroom - this would help them assess the teachers better. Wouldn't it be appropriate for all corrected tests/quizzes/assessments be returned to the students for study?
Alethiologist December 02, 2012 at 01:16 PM
Hmmmm, do you think maybe the teachers just didn't want to deal with parents questions? Wouldn't it be better if parents know what's going on and reviewed homework with their children?

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