Half days approved by school board


WESTFIELD – The School Committee voted to conditionally accept a 2012-2013 school calendar which includes 10 professional development days for teachers and staff members.
The condition of that acceptance is that the committee will revisit the professional development schedule at its first December meeting to determine if the plan is effective in providing a higher quality of instruction to students in the classroom.
The plan will add 30 hours of peer-led professional development, teachers learning from other teachers and subject matter experts from Westfield State University. That peer instruction will be provided during three hour blocks of instruction and collaboration, which will qualify for both teacher professional development certification credit and for WSU graduate level credit, through a program to revise math instruction in the district.
Those 10 professional development days will appear to be half days of instruction for students on the calendar, a concern voiced by committee members and several parents during the hour-long discussion of the professional development plan and its impact on families in the Instruction & Curriculum Subcommittee prior to the regular School Committee session.
However, School Superintendent Suzanne Scallion said she is working with principals, PTO groups, community organizations and parents to provide enrichment programs for students. Scallion said that the plan uses an “urban model” half day, which allows students to stay through the lunch meal to ensure that children from economically-stressed families receive nutrition. Scallion said she is aware of the burden placed on parents who will have to make alternate child care plans because of their own employment schedules.
“So if a child needs to stay at school, we will have exciting enrichment programs,” Scallion said. “We are already talking with local vendors. If this is approved, we’d turn it around to make sure that the enrichment programs are superior.”
Scallion said that the district would institute a second bus run for families that opt to keep their children in school for the enrichment programs.
Scallion said that the lost instructional time, a concern also expressed by both parents and committee members during the subcommittee discussion, would be addressed by adding a few minutes to the daily schedules.
Jason Queenin of Sackets Drive, the father of two children in the city’s school district, said that he frequently travels to regions of the world where students attend school six days a week and for a much longer school day than here in the United States.
“I’m having dinner on a Friday night with friends in those countries, especially in Asia, and I’ll ask what their plans are for the weekend and they say they’ll be taking their children to school,” Queenin said. “We’re competing with that. I know the importance of professional development. The most important thing is the education of our children and 10 half days will take away time for the children to be in the classroom. You should be talking about pushing our children’s education.”
School Committee Vice Chairman Kevin Sullivan, who had requested the issue be sent to the subcommittee for further review and to allow constituents to provide feedback, said that he did have concerns about the plan.
“The issue is not the need for professional development.  We need to get that back into the system,” Sullivan said, “My question is the model. What do we do with kids on the half days? We don’t want it to be a wasted day.”
Committeeman William Duval objected to a half day instructional format of keeping the same number of periods, but for a much shorter period of time. Duval suggested that the period be maintained at the time span and rotated over the 10-day plan.  “We have the same goal as parents.  We want to educate our children as effectively as possible.”
Another suggestion was to flip the half day instruction and professional development time. One day instruction could be in the morning, and professional development in the afternoon. The next time the professional development could be in the morning and instruction in the afternoon.
Committeewoman Diane Mayhew said that the district is embracing a new perspective of professional development.
“The old standard of professional development is that it is time spent away from the children, time when they’re not learning,” Mayhew said. “Professional development is teaching teachers to be more effective when they are in front of their students.”
Scallion said that if she becomes queen “we’d have a longer school year, that we’d have a longer school day. We do need to compete globally, but we also need to compete within the state. We need to move away from the agricultural model of the school day and year.”
“The (professional development) model we’ve come up with is not new. It’s being used across the country, across the state,” Scallion said.
Westfield is a level 3 district. Scallion polled superintendents in districts across the state and presented her findings to the committee that all of the level 3 districts responding to the poll are going to the 10 day professional development day plan next year.
Committeeman Ramon Diaz, who voted against the calendar and professional development plan, planted the seed of a review in December to assess if the plan is actually improving instruction and learning.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people on both sides of the issue,” Diaz said. “It’s not that we don’t want professional development, we must dip our foot into the water before we dive in the pool.”
“We need to take a look at a smaller number of days to see how it works, then go down that path,” he said. “I’d like to see an actual commitment to the enrichment programs.”

To see last night’s school committee meeting, click here.

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