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Makeup Plan Avoids Cutting Vacations

Schools add hours, use teacher workday for snow makeup.

Students are keeping a close eye on their holidays this year

Originally, Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day were scheduled as days off school. But after this winter’s snowstorms led school officials to cancel eight days of school, Memorial Day and Presidents’ Day were designated as makeup days. After an entire week of cancellations, Superintendent Robert Smith announced Friday, Feb. 21 that the Memorial Day holiday was back on.

Smith’s new plan for making up snow days would make the school day 30 minutes longer, starting March 17 and continuing through the end of the year. Memorial Day, previously designated as a makeup day, would again become a holiday. But a teacher workday scheduled for Friday, March 28 would become a makeup day.

Losing the workday, and other aspects of Smith’s plan, is drawing complaints from Arlington’s teachers’ union. “I think the part that’s most egregious is to take away the teachers’ workday as if that’s not important,” said Kathryn Scruggs, president of the Arlington Education Association.

Teachers could use the March 28 workday to calculate and report third-quarter grades, which must be done using school computers. Now Smith has told teachers to calculate their grades at home and report to school on Saturday, March 29, to file the grades electronically.

That may communicate one of two messages to teachers, Scruggs said: Either reporting grades isn’t important enough to be time-consuming, or Smith doesn’t value his teachers’ time. “If reporting is important, it should not be done outside of contract hours,” said Scruggs.

Furthermore, telling teachers to work on Saturday is “disrespectful of cultural differences,” she said, particularly towards Jewish teachers for whom Saturday is a holy day.

SMITH EXPECTS to hear plenty of feedback on the proposal but said he thinks most people will find it a workable plan. “I think by and large it will be well-received,” he said.

The primary rationale for this proposal, he said, was providing students with the instruction they need. “[The schedule] provides the time for instruction that we need, when we most need it,” he said.

Adding time at different points in the year can make a big difference to student achievement. Some students said that if school officials added make-up days at the end of the school year, after standardized tests have been administered, then extra time is wasted.

Smith’s proposal hopes to avoid that by adding time earlier in the year; how the extra 30 minutes are used will be up to individual schools. That has some students and parents wondering how much extra instruction the extra time will really add.

In middle schools and high schools on a seven-period schedule, the half-hour could be distributed across each class, giving students about four extra minutes per course. That doesn’t sound like much use to some.

“I’m not sure if three or four minutes would really add a lot,” said Sue Schaller, a Yorktown junior. Extra time could be useful for classes like art, where setup and cleanup take away a large portion of regular 45-minute classes, she said, but the impact of a few minutes would be negligible.

But the extra time adds up, Smith said. “I think it will make a difference,” he said. “It’s cumulative. Does five minutes make a difference? Yeah, it’s five minutes that you’re not getting ready to go. It’s adding to the instructional time.”

ADDITIONAL TIME could be a problem at the elementary school level. Jane Shepard, President of the County Council of PTAs, said the proposed changes would have little effect on middle and high schools. But the extra time could be a blessing or a curse for elementary schools.

Shepard will urge individual schools to consider various options, including one-on-one reading instruction, practices for standardized tests or even giving students and teachers “a decent lunch hour,” instead of the __ minutes currently allotted.

Smith said elementary school teachers have a great deal of flexibility in dividing up the day, which will keep students from becoming bored or tired by the extended day.

But some parents are worried. “It could be a very long day for these full-day kindergartners,” said Nancy O’Doherty, Ashlawn PTA president. O’Doherty said she had “mixed feelings” about Smith’s proposal but had not yet had time to discuss it with other Ashlawn parents.

PARENTS AREN’T the only ones scrambling to analyze the plan. Scruggs said many teachers received no direct notification of Smith’s plan, instead hearing about it only by word-of-mouth when they returned to school Monday.

Smith officially presented the plan to school board members at their work session Tuesday, leaving many teachers feeling out of the loop.

“We are quite dismayed at the unilateral proposal,” said Scruggs. “Arlington prides itself on collaboration. Well, this is a real poor example of collaboration.”

Board members will be listening to feedback up until Thursday, March 6, but that’s not enough time to truly involve all those who will be affected by the changes, Scruggs said, and that leads to problems.

“I think it’s confusing right now, because the pressure seems to be, we have to hurry up,” she said. “I don’t have that same sense of urgency… I think we have to do it right.”

DOING THE RIGHT thing means balancing various interests, Smith said. In addition to making up instructional time, the current proposal is “respectful to the commitments we’ve already made to parents,” he said.

Many parents plan vacations during Spring Break and immediately after the end of the school year, so making up snow days before those holidays keeps parents from making costly changes to their plans.

That’s fine, Scruggs said, but staff shouldn’t be penalized just to protect parents’ vacation times. “It just seems to me that he is responding to parents’ comments rather than his own employees,” she said.