The Learning Curve: The Full Story on Half Days

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

The Learning Curve: The Full Story on Half Days

San Diego Unified schools have shortened schedules one day a week. These “half days,” as they’re sometimes called, are written into the district’s contract with the teachers union.

The adorable neighborhood kids begin kicking the soccer ball against my house extra early on Wednesday afternoons. This happens daily, mind you, but it’s especially cute when I’m writing from home, on deadline, praying for silence. God bless them.

Learning Curve-01In these moments, before I find peace, I land on one question: Why aren’t you in school? I figured school had gotten out early, but never followed up. Thanks to this week’s question, I got around to finding out why.

Question: Can you explain how the minimum days came about? It seems really odd for elementary students to have a half-day every week. – Leslie Hulburt, San Diego Unified parent

Indeed, Leslie. San Diego Unified schools have shortened schedules one day a week. I knew this to be true, thanks to the lovable rascals I already mentioned. But just to be sure, I reached out to Jim Solo, the district’s executive director of leadership and learning.

He told me the shortened days fall on Wednesdays for most schools, but for some they’re Thursdays or Fridays. Dismissal times vary, but Solo says kids are typically in school for about four hours on shortened days.

Solo says half-days have been around for years, and are just part of the fabric of San Diego Unified schools. The state mandates a certain number of instructional minutes schools must provide, which he says the district meets or exceeds.

What I didn’t know before talking to Solo was that these “half days” as they’re sometimes called, are written into the district’s contract with the teachers union. You can read that part of the contract here. It begins on Page 12.

Teachers can use these days to plan lessons, grade exams or participate in training sessions. There are a few exceptions. Schools can’t schedule required training-sessions on half-days if they fall near exams, for example. In those cases, teachers have days reserved for grading and class prep.

Of course, the early dismissals aren’t always easy on parents, who have to juggle their schedules to pick kids up from schools and make sure they’re looked after. Some parents pool resources with other parents – “You pick up and watch the kids this Wednesday, I’ll take the next week.” That type of thing. The PrimeTime Extended Day program – a district program that partners with local service providers like the YMCA – is also an option for parents. The idea is to give kids a nearby place to learn and do fun stuff until their parents can pick them up after work.

It makes sense that teachers want to protect half-days. We tend to think of teaching as the thing that takes place when a teacher is standing in front of kids in a classroom. But the behind-the-scenes work is a much bigger, and perhaps more important, piece of the job.

Just how much extra time teachers need to be successful, it turns out, is a question that’s hashed out between the district and union bargaining teams.

Follow-Ups

In last week’s Learning Curve, I took a look at the Summer Slide, or students’ tendency to backslide during the summer months they’re not in school. Research and anecdotes support the idea that the slide can be more pronounced for low-income students.

One of the ways some districts have tried to tackle this is by offering year-round school, which more frequent, shorter breaks throughout the school year. But I fumbled when I wrote that San Diego Unified is currently considering this. Please forgive me.

The district actually decided earlier this school year that the year-round schedule is out, and decided to shift all district schools to the traditional calendar. Still on the table, however, is moving the start of the school year from early September (after Labor Day), to the last week of August. Later this month, the district will decide whether it’ll make this shift starting in the 2016-2017 school year.

To be frank, the number of readers who emailed me, concerned about this change, caught me off-guard. The change we’re talking about is only a couple weeks.

But there’s a robust conversation about this happening among parents about whether the change could cost the district money or hurt students in the long run. If you’d like to read up, check out this email that Heather Worms, one parent who has two kids in the Mission Bay cluster, sent to school board members.

Ed Reads of the Week

• At Success Academy Charter Schools, Polarizing Methods and Superior Results (New York Times)

This beast of a story is an exhaustive look at Success Academy, a thriving (and of course, polarizing) charter school network in New York City.

The lead anecdote, about a little boy whose failing grades had been posted publicly for months, sets up the story perfectly. After months of struggle and frustration, he scores a 90 on a quiz, which his teacher announces to the rest of the class.

If you believe charter schools have a unique power to raise students above the low expectations thrust upon them, this story captures it:

“Though it serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, Success is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs, let alone their urban counterparts. In New York City last year, 29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 35 percent passed the math tests. At Success schools, the corresponding percentages were 64 and 94 percent.”

But if you believe charter schools achieve gains thanks to a type of high-pressure, test-score fanaticism, well, this story has that, too.

Teacher turnover rates at Success are about three times higher than they are in NYC’s public school system.

Former Success teachers told the Times they left the school because they couldn’t stand the pressure, or didn’t agree with school’s methods. Several of them said it wasn’t uncommon for little kids to wet their pants during quizzes because students were so worried about getting good scores they didn’t want to waste time leaving for a bathroom break. It happened regularly enough that teachers stocked extra sweats and underwear for kids who had “accidents.”

It may be tempting to take what you read about Success and apply it with a broad brush to all charter schools. That goes for the successes, as well as the horror stories. But remember that charter schools – like traditional public schools – aren’t created equal. For better or worse.

Parents and Teachers Meet in a New York Minute (or 5 if They’re Lucky) (New York Times)

This is a fascinating glimpse at how parent-teacher conferences unfurl at New York City schools. Read as parents sprint from classroom to classroom, just to get two minutes with their kids’ teachers.

You can almost taste a little adrenaline – quite a feat considering the story is about parent-teacher conferences. A little comic relief comes from the parents who spends a few precious minutes talking to a teacher who has confused their kid for someone else’s.

The Math Ceiling: Where’s your cognitive breaking point? (Math With Bad Drawings)

I’ve never identified as a math person. Numbers have always seemed so abstract to me, and somewhere around Algebra, the rules and abstract pieces became hopelessly and permanently tangled.

But what if this belief that we’re either math people or we’re not is actually part of the problem? After all, if we really believe in things like neuroplasticity or the brain’s ability to grasp new concepts, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to math. In this blog post, complete with bad drawings, math teachers weigh in.

The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Submit your question here or write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org. I just might tackle it in next week’s edition.

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