Save the date: School board sets pre-Labor Day start, expands staff development time

Published 9:33 pm Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A bevy of teachers and administrators took to the school board public forum Tuesday night to share their opinions on the school calendar: namely, that it needed to change.

Six employees, including two principals, two teachers and two district-level employees, all advocated not for a pre- or post-Labor Day start, but for the chosen calendar to put an emphasis on more — and more spread out — staff development days.

“We have to have the chance to talk about big ideas, to learn, to reflect, to grow,” Albert Lea High School English teacher Therese Netzer told the board, referencing philosopher Socrates’ — and his student, Plato’s — teachings on enlightenment. “… We know that enlightened teachers can positively impact students.”

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The 2019-20 calendar approved — with a pre-Labor Day start of Aug. 19 for elementary students, sixth- and eighth-graders and Aug. 20 for remaining students — included one structured professional development day ahead of school’s start. However, days designated as all-staff district days are also utilized for professional development — along with work time like setting up classrooms, preparing report cards, planning student schedules for those receiving additional services, getting ready for conferences and general work time. In addition to the structured professional development days, the 2019-20 calendar includes three new teacher workshop days and five district days before the start of the year. However, the calendar also adds one district day intended for staff development on Oct. 21, as well as an additional district day at the start of the second semester, on Jan. 2 and 3.

Halverson Elementary School interventionist Dara Gjersvik said the October date could be especially helpful for reviewing data and examining student progression from tests elementary students do at conference time at the beginning of the year.

While the 2018-19 calendar scheduled two structured professional development days, three new teacher workshop days and five all-staff district days prior to the start of the school year, following the year’s start, the only district day scheduled for staff was Jan. 2.

District math specialist Christine Quisley said the goal was more “meaningful distributed practice.”

“Getting a one and done at the beginning of the year is not enough,” she said. “… When we say we want to invest in our students, we need to start and keep doing that by investing in our teachers,” she said. “Invest in us. Give us what we need and what we’re asking for of more time sprinkled throughout the years, because that’s what the research shows that works.”

Sibley Elementary School Principal Diane Schultz and Teaching and Learning Coordinator Julie Eaton both said providing more staff development allows buildings to increase instructional consistency and quality between teachers. Right now, Eaton said, staff development is happening in pockets based on teacher availability.

“This is creating a discrepancy in the fidelity of our work with students,” she said.

Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Mary Jo Dorman referenced the district’s current work with a curriculum consultant as elementary schools revamp their phonics instruction. For teachers to take part in professional development with the phonics trainer, the district had to hire substitutes while staff met together to sort through data and discuss a plan for the year’s remainder.

“We need to do that during professional development times,” Schultz said.

Southwest Middle School sixth-grade English teacher Krista Ahnemann and Albert Lea High School Principal Mark Grossklaus also spoke in favor of more professional development days, as did student school board members Gigi Otten and Maggie Moller. Both agreed classroom time could be used more efficiently if teachers had more time to prepare and collaborate.

School board members voted first to approve an early start calendar, and then again to approve the exact schedule of days after further discussion. Board members Jill Marin and Angie Hanson voted against the early start calendar, though all board members voted for the exact approved schedule in the second vote.

The approved 2019-20 calendar includes 172 student contact days for elementary students and 173 for secondary students, a timeline school board member Neal Skaar said did not meet the 174 quota he said board members approved a few years ago. Albert Lea Area Schools Superintendent Mike Funk said the district has to approve the calendar every year, and therefore every year the number of student contact days is up to board purview.

While Skaar said he does not denigrate the importance of professional development, he “would very much prefer they not be at the expense of student contact days.”

Marin also expressed concern about student contact days, though hers came in the form of snow day make-ups. While she has received positive community feedback about eLearning days, she said there were still challenges with consistency of instruction. She said she wanted the calendar option to have built-in snow day make-ups.

While board members Dennis Dieser and Hanson, student board member Moller and the superintendent agreed improvements are needed for the district’s eLearning, Funk, Skaar, school board member Kim Nelson and board chairman Ken Petersen said they didn’t believe make-up days to be an effective use of time.

“We are providing opportunities for our students at this point in time, and I can tell you that we are reevaluating what we’re doing with eLearning and how we can improve it or make it better,” Funk said.

Petersen said he considers eLearning days a good solution for the problem of Minnesota weather.

“I don’t think anybody thought eLearning would replace teaching,” Petersen said.

Look to Thursday’s Tribune for more school board coverage.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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