Schools study ways to ease time crunch
By KENT FISCHER
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001
The discussion in Bob Hundley's honors English class is just heating up. In The Great Gatsby, does Daisy Buchanan have any core values? What about her cousin Nick?
One student has some definite ideas about Nick and jumps into the discussion.
"I don't think Nick really even knows himself -- that's why . . ." she says, before the bell ending the school day abruptly cuts her off.
If only it were the first time that a school bell cut short a teacher's lesson.
"I could have carried on that discussion for another 20 minutes," said Hundley, who teaches at Hudson High School. "We're like Pavlov's dogs: We hear the bell, and we start salivating. We need to rethink this old notion of 50-minute classes."
Pasco County's top administrators are doing just that. Superintendent John Long recently asked principals to brainstorm ways the district could shake up the conventional school day to help alleviate crowding in several west Pasco high schools.
Last month, the district sent three principals and several School Board members and top administrators to Louisville, Ky., to visit schools there using year-round calendars, offering longer school days and running on four-day weeks.
A districtwide committee of teachers, principals and administrators has also begun meeting to explore some of those innovations to see which might work here.
"We need to convince our schools, principals and community to look at different ways they can use their time to improve student achievement," School Board member Kathleen Wolf said at a recent meeting. For years Wolf has prodded the district to consider restructuring its school day and school year.
School starts for Hudson High students at 7:50 a.m. They attend six 50-minute periods and are out of school each day at 2 p.m. While 50 minutes may sound good for a class period, all sorts of minor distractions constantly nibble at the time.
Take, for example, Hundley's first-period class from March 22.
During the first nine minutes of class, Hundley took attendance and students listened to morning announcements. Then the kids spent 5 minutes filling out a survey for a television production class that was working on a story for the school's morning news show.
During the next 15 minutes, Hundley checked the previous day's homework and reviewed a weekly list of vocabulary words, leaving him a little more than 20 minutes for his new lesson -- a discussion of ethics and morals in The Great Gatsby.
"If you add up all the minutes that get pulled away from your instruction, it's just amazing," Hundley said. "There are so many little infringements on our time. We've just gotten used to it."
Hudson principal Greg Wright was one of those who went to Kentucky last month. He said he hopes to change Hudson's school day within the next two to three years. One idea he likes: cutting the school week down to four days and making the fifth day one of extracurricular activities and remedial classes for kids who have fallen behind.
Such a schedule makes sense, Wright said, because it would allow teachers to work with struggling kids now rather than waiting for them to fail and then trying to catch them up during summer school. Setting aside a day a week for extracurricular activities could also eliminate the daily "infringements" that Hundley is concerned about.
Elementary school teacher Marianne Rhodes said she would like to see the school day start earlier for young children. At Calusa Elementary, where Rhodes teaches fifth grade, the school day begins at 9:30 a.m., although the first 20 minutes are often devoted to getting the kids settled in and ready to work.
Rhodes said many of her students start their days at day care or a relatives' house as early as 6 a.m. so by the time school rolls around, they've already been up for three or four hours. And with the school day lasting until 3:40 p.m., most of the kids are tired by 2 p.m., so Rhodes said she rarely attempts any in-depth lessons late in the day.
District administrators are considering flip-flopping the school starting times, commencing the high school day later in the morning and moving up the elementary day. But, like all the options the district is exploring, nothing is certain.
One big obstacle in all this may be the teachers union, which has negotiated into teacher contracts some tough rules regarding planning time.
The current teacher contract requires schools to give teachers at least one period per day to plan lessons and take care of district and classroom paperwork. Schools that want to deviate from that must get 80 percent of their faculty to agree to the change.
Moon Lake Elementary School restructured its schedule three years ago to give teachers longer uninterrupted blocks of time with their students. One week a month, the students spend an entire day attending music, art and gym classes. Their teachers, meanwhile, had virtually an entire day to meet and plan lessons.
With art, music and gym out of the way for the week, the remaining four days were relatively free of interruption, said Kathy Vito, who was Moon Lake's principal during the experiment.
Most of the school's teachers liked the change, in part because it gave them an additional three hours of instruction with their students during the reconfigured week. The experiment lasted only one year, however, because Vito couldn't get the 80-percent approval from the faculty that she needed to keep the schedule going when the year ended.
"I fell one person short of the 80 percent," Vito said. "I was really sad to see it go."
Another big hurdle facing the district is money. Superintendent Long says he doesn't expect the state to give the district any additional money to lengthen the school year, to stretch the school day or to pay teachers to work additional hours.
The district would likely have to tap its summer school accounts and other money it gets for remedial classes to cover any changes, he said. If that money can't be freed up, the district may have to look at changes that won't actually add any new instructional time to the school calendar.
And the district also must persuade parents that the changes are needed. One big challenge may be differentiating any future changes from the district's last attempt at an "alternative" calendar, the hated "45/15" double sessions of the mid 1970s when kids went to school year-round, 45 days on and 15 off.
"We're going to have to do a very good job of selling (any changes) to parents," Long said. "We'll have to convince them that this isn't 45/15."
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