Peter Geiger, shown here in a Montello Elementary School classroom, says students aren’t getting enough instruction time because of early-release days, teacher workshops, holidays, vacations and snow days. The school calendar should be “about what’s best for kids,” Geiger said. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — During the week of March 12, Lewiston students went to school two out of five days.

They had school Monday. No school Tuesday and Wednesday because of snow days. They returned to school Thursday, but had Friday off — teachers took the day in exchange for working nights earlier in the year for parent-teacher conferences.

It was an unusual week.

But students having fewer full weeks of school is growing more common in Maine for a variety of reasons, including early-release days, teacher workshops and training, holidays, traditional school vacations at Christmas, February and April, and snow days, says longtime education advocate Peter Geiger of Lewiston.

“There’s so much wrong with our calendar. We’ve got to do something,” Geiger said. “Ultimately, it’s about what’s best for kids.”

Speaking recently to the Lewiston School Committee, Geiger said if he were sitting in their shoes he’d focus on the quality of the education days. Already, Maine has one of the shortest state-mandated school years in the country: 175 days.

Those days are not created equal, Geiger said. Better-quality lessons occur in the fall, winter and spring, rather than the warm days of June. That higher-quality instruction is contingent upon concentrated teaching. Increasingly, students are getting fewer of those full, uninterrupted weeks, he said.

Speaking with Montello Principal Jim Cliffe recently, Geiger said, “School districts want to check off that they have school for 175 days (to meet the state mandate). ‘Aren’t we good?’ Well, it depends on how good those 175 days are.”

In the past two years, Lewiston schools started releasing students early nine times a year to give teachers time for training. That’s nine days of abbreviated classes.

Elementary students also miss a full day of school in October to make time for parent-teacher conferences. That means, Superintendent Bill Webster told the School Committee recently, elementary students are actually only getting 174 days.

In Auburn, students in kindergarten through sixth grade have had half-day Wednesdays for years. Next year, for the first time, students in grades 7 through 12 will have nine early-release Wednesdays.

Criticism from Auburn parents last year — some called for a bigger budget to give students more class time — prompted education leaders to reduce the proposed number of early-release days for grades 7 through 12 from weekly to monthly. Also, Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin took away one hour of each kindergarten through grade six early-release day for next year, releasing them at 1 p.m. Wednesdays instead of noon.

Other states and school districts have looked for ways to increase class time.

New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts, among others, require a minimum of 180 school days per year. Schools in Kansas City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Virginia and Maryland, to name a few, have opted to have one week of vacation in March, as opposed to February and April vacation weeks, to reduce teaching disruptions. 

Montello’s Cliffe said he doesn’t have the answers for the best calendar, but he agreed that having uninterrupted schedules for instruction is important.

“One of the things we communicate to staff leading up to one of the long breaks is to maintain the routine as much as possible,” Cliffe said. “The fewer interruptions and changes in routines we have for kids, the better.”

Geiger is advocating that:

• In years with many snow days, make them up during April vacation.

• Teachers attend workshops on Saturdays, not on student days. “I would never take the phone off the hook so employees could do planning. I’m there when customers want me. The same should be said for children.”

• There be no early-release days. 

Geiger has years of experience in educational policy. He’s served on a number of state and local education panels that addressed everything from aspirations to instruction. He’s chaired the Maine State Board of Education. For years his company, Geiger, which produces the Farmers’ Almanac, has adopted Lewiston’s Montello Elementary School.

Reacting to Geiger’s points, other experts agree it would be nice if the school calendar had more class time, but there’s little agreement on how.

More than early-release days, “what’s causing the interruption now is the increase in snow days in the past two years,” said Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin. After the Christmas break and the February vacation, “we get our momentum and then there’s a snow day. It’s a challenge in the winter months.”

Samantha Garnett Sias of the Lewiston teachers’ union and Jennifer Corey of the Auburn teachers’ union said teachers should not be mandated to work six days a week by attending Saturday workshops.

“Many teachers willingly give their weekend time to do all the work they need to support their students. Requiring a six-day week is not appropriate,” Garnett Sias said.

Canceling the April vacation without a significant notice isn’t appropriate either, she said, because many families and school employees plan and pay for vacations in advance.

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley and Grondin both noted that preserving the February vacation is important because it provides a break from sick children passing on viruses.

Corey agreed that snow days have caused bigger interruptions this year, adding that she’d support a well-planned process to explore options, but not knowing whether there would be an April vacation could be a problem, she said.

Garnett Sias acknowledged that there’s been some student class time erosion. She told the School Committee on March 19 that holding parent-teacher conferences during the day “means another day without instruction. It seems like more than ever we’re losing instruction time for various reasons.”
 
Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said the school calendar is a complicated issue that districts struggle to balance.

Saying he wasn’t speaking for the MSMA but from his 45 years in education, Bailey said Maine’s 175 student days “is a short time” often affected by things such as snow days, vacations, holidays and early-release days for teacher training.

“It does wear on the amount of time kids have to participate in learning,” he said.

On the other hand, Bailey said, schools and teachers are being required “to do so many things,” from child abuse and suicide training to proficiency-based learning. It takes time for teachers to come up to speed on what should be done, he said.

Lewiston’s Webster said it would be great if students had five consistent days of school each week throughout the year. But, he added, teacher workshops directly benefit instruction.

“If teachers don’t have time to plan and reflect on their practices, they’re going to be much less effective in the classroom,” Webster said. “If you, as a teacher, know where each of your students is, it’s not going to make sense to teach something they already know.”

One way to give teachers that training time is early release, Bailey said. Another is adding workshop days on non-school days. That’s a choice between cutting back on student time or spending more on education.

Adding teacher workshop days to the calendar would be expensive, Grondin and Webster said. In Lewiston, adding one more student day would cost about $200,000, about $1 million for five more student days, Webster said.

Using early-release days is one way to schedule needed teacher training at less cost, he said, though it also takes away from direct teaching. 

When Bailey was a school superintendent in southern Maine, he and his principals talked about how to create the most uninterrupted time for students. One way was holding early release days on a Monday or a Friday “so there wasn’t an interruption in the middle of the week,” giving students a more solid block of consistent class time, he said.

The rub there, Bailey said, is that some parents reasoned that their students could miss school on that Monday or Friday because it wasn’t a full day, which reduced class time for those students even more.

Bailey agreed that one way to keep kids in school more often during the optimum fall-winter-spring time would be to do away with the February and April vacations and have one vacation week in March, as is done in other states.

Webster said he’d be all for Saturday teacher workshops and changing the school vacations to March, eliminating the February and April weeks off, which could mean school would end five days earlier in June.

But that kind of change would require negotiations and agreement with teachers’ unions.  It would require other Maine districts, including the five districts — Auburn, Poland, Sabattus, Lisbon and Turner — that share Lewiston’s Regional Technical Center, to adopt the March vacation schedule.

“I don’t see that happening,” Webster said.

The 2018-19 calendar for Lewiston Public Schools will be voted on April 9.

The 2018-19 calendar for Auburn Public Schools was approved March 21.

Peter Geiger, standing in front of the Montello Elementary School playground, says the school calendar is broken. Students are losing too much class time because of early-release days, teacher workshops, holidays, vacations and snow days. “We have to do something,” Geiger said. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)


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