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Schools’ new early release policy ignites firestorm

School board criticized for short notice

By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

A change in the school schedules for the 2016-17 school year will send kindergarteners through eighth graders home an hour early every Tuesday. High school students will have a later arrival time every Wednesday.

The move, which was approved 4-1 by the Williston School Board on April 26, aims to provide improved, ongoing in-service training for public school teachers year-round, but it has ignited a firestorm from parents in recent weeks, after the coming year’s school calendar was published and the details emerged.

“EARLY DISMISSAL?? Can anyone explain the process by which this was passed?” wrote a parent on a private Facebook group May 2 — a sentiment to which 22 commenters replied. The group, which has just over 300 members, is a forum for parents to communicate about the schools and issues in the area relating to their children. Since late March, it’s also become a forum for dialogue about the Williston School Board’s decision.

A district fact sheet said the change was made to help teachers and “allow for more frequent, sustained professional development.” Kevin Mara, the district chair, said the changes evolved out of curriculum development at Champlain Valley Union High School and administrators were on board with it, as part of a full-bore effort to meet the demands of teaching Common Core. Common Core is a nationwide academic initiative with math and literacy standards that’s been adopted in 42 states, and ensures all students graduate high school with the skills deemed necessary for success in college or a career path.

“They came to the conclusion that the way professional development worked right now, it’s hard work for getting the standards together,” he said. “It’s all been driven by the Common Core.”

“To leverage that work [the administration’s done in adopting the standards] they feel they need to teach and learn just like they do with the kids; they need to do it on a more regular, constant basis,” Mara said.

“When you look at all the positives against the inconveniences, the board felt it made sense,” added Mara.

Some parents, like Stephanie Glock, said they understand the need for the change, but that there’s been inadequate preparation or resources offered to parents to help them accommodate the schedule.

“I think change is hard for everybody and if it’s going to benefit the teachers, that’s great. But the people who work school hours – such as myself, it puts us in a bind,” she said. Previously, the schools simply shut down for teacher training days four or five times per school year, which she noted was easier for parents like her to take off work.

“Changing your work schedule every week – that’s a change in your work schedule. That’s not taking five vacation days a year. It puts me in a really bad position, because I need to stay full time,” she said, in order to get benefits in her job as a business manager at Fleming Museum. Glock said she’s not sure what her family, which includes her two sons, one in preschool and the other in first grade, will do.

School buses will pick children up and drop them off an hour earlier, Mara said, and the Imagine program, which offers afterschool care, would start earlier to match the schedule. He also said the district reached out to many private afterschool programs so they could adjust their offerings to accommodate the shift in families’ needs.

Allen Brook School will dismiss at 1:45 p.m. every Tuesday, and Williston Central School will get out at 1:55 p.m. CVU will also have a shortened school day each week to accommodate teacher training, however the shift will take place on Wednesday mornings, instead of sharing the Tuesday early release of the K-8 schools.

The Facebook group, called Williston, VT Parents, began posting about the proposed changes nearly a month before the early dismissal proposal was published in the School Bell, the district’s online newsletter, on April 6.

But it wasn’t until after the vote, in early May, that the bewilderment began, as parents congregated online to explain, and complain, about the shortened school day—a move that’s been adopted across Chittenden South Supervisory Union elementary schools. Mara said if Williston held out, it would be the only district not on the new schedule.

Still, some parents have lobbed charges on Facebook that the board deliberately held back on notifying them. “Other than this group, has there been any other public announcement of the change?” wondered one parent. “There hadn’t been a community announcement or any community requests for input other than the Q&A night for parents. Part of me wonders if that’s intentional for fear of significant negative backlash.”

“I must have missed a memo because I did not realize it was going to be every week,” posted another parent, four days after the board’s vote.

Mara said there was public notice, in the sense that it was posted in a published agenda, and in the School Bell April 6. Additionally, he pointed to an April 14 informational session held for parents. [Editor’s note: See Mara’s letter, page 7.]

“There is a process for how this is reviewed and how we gather input,” he said. “It’s introduced in one month as an agenda item. We discuss it, then we take action on an item the following month,” he said.

In an online video produced by the district, 10 teachers from different CSSU schools talk about the positives of having weekly professional development, and ask for the support of those watching.

Aron Merrill, a Voyager House teacher at Williston Central School, explains in the video that he fully supports the move because, “I think education’s changing at a really fast pace and our district has many new intitiaves happening and we really need the regular routine time together to get training and skills and time to integrate these practices into our routine,” he says.

“I hope you support us with this, and thank you so much,” he adds as the video ends.