Newton's school district says teachers need more time for professional development. Parents say their children need more hours in class.
A decision by the Newton district to add two early release days to the middle-school calendar has brought this long-simmering debate to the surface.
The change brings the total number of early release days for Newton's middle schoolers to six. In addition, every Tuesday, the students are released 45 minutes early.
Many parents contend increasing the days that students are let out early throws off work schedules, leaves many children who have working parents without supervision, and takes away from quality learning time.
"Educational research shows the community should push for longer school days and more time in learning, but we keep adding early release times instead of adding learning time," said Margaret Albright, a Newtonville resident with a fifth-grade son at Horace Mann Elementary School. "There's so much in the curriculum and there's so much to be done that it seems shameful they get home at 11:30."
But school officials say professional development time is essential to improving curriculum.
"In order to provide the kind of quality education we want to provide, we need to also provide the planning time for teachers," said Sharon DeCarlo, executive director of instructional programs in Newton. "This is not time when teachers are off doing their own thing; it's very organized in terms of professional development and moving the curriculum forward. The purpose is for teachers to be planning high-quality learning environments."
The state requires school systems to provide a 180-day school year, with 990 hours of instructional time for secondary school students and 900 hours for elementary school students. Early release days count toward the 180 days, and schools' adherence to the requirements is monitored in a review every six years. School districts have the freedom to decide hours and schedules.
Newton, in its review last year, met the time guidelines, with the exception of a quarter of an hour at Newton North High School.
Some Newton parents said they question how much time teachers need for professional development.
"Other districts accomplish the same thing without all the early release time," Albright said, echoing other Newton parents.
But an informal survey of neighboring districts suggests Newton's early release schedule is not unusual.
Newton's elementary students get out of school at 12:30 p.m. every Tuesday and have seven additional early release days. Middle schools are dismissed 45 minutes early every Tuesday and have six additional early release days. The high schools have five early release days.
Several other districts, including Wayland, Wellesley, and Maynard, have weekly early release days for at least some grades.
In Wellesley, elementary school students have weekly early release days, and secondary schools have at least nine early release days. In Wayland, all grades have weekly early release days. All Needham students have nine early release days a year.
Maynard increased the number of early release days this year, but releases students later on those days than it did previously, allowing shorter but more frequent meetings for teachers. Elementary students have weekly early release days, middle school students depart earlier on 11 days, and high school students leave early on 13 days.
"We looked at other high-performing districts and modeled it after their program," said Daniel Mayer, assistant superintendent for Maynard's school system. "The premise is the best way to improve performance at a school is to engage teachers in regular dialogue about their craft."
Giving teachers more professional development time without taking away instructional time requires negotiating longer hours - which means more pay - in teacher contracts, officials said. Economic conditions don't allow districts to pay teachers more, leaving them to perform a balancing act.
"It would be fair to say most administrators and teachers would like professional development to happen at the end of the school day, if we could afford to do that," Mayer said. "But we did the cost-benefit analysis and concluded the benefits in terms of instructional quality outweighed the costs in terms of shortening the duration of some school days."
But some parents contend their children are not getting quality classroom time on short days, particularly at the middle schools, where students begin the day at 8, eat lunch at 10:30, and head home an hour later.
Jo-Louise Allen, an Upper Falls parent of a Brown Middle School sixth-grader, said her son came home on an early release day this year and said his entire school day had consisted of discussing homelessness and watching an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on the subject.
"It's ridiculous, really," Allen said. "They can have an hour-and-a-half discussion on some topic and call it a school day."
DeCarlo said she couldn't speak to that specific instance, but "would be willing to wager that the great majority of students are in active learning during those days . . . and the great majority of teachers are providing high-quality instruction."
Several parents said they understand the need for professional development, but wish it could be arranged to be more convenient and less expensive in terms of after-school care.
In response, DeCarlo said, Newton Community Education, an arm of the school system, is developing a middle-school program for the four remaining release days this year.
"I understand the challenges parents face and the concerns they have," she said, "and we are working to address them."
Rachana Rathi can be reached at email@example.com.