Education

‘15 minutes is huge.’ Parents speak out about proposed school time change in Muscogee County.

Superintendent responds to parent’s criticism of proposed change to school times

Virginia Korcha, a mother of Muscogee County School District children, speaks to the Muscogee County School Board during its monthly meeting Monday, May 20, 2019, in the Muscogee County Public Education Center. Superintendent David Lewis responds.
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Virginia Korcha, a mother of Muscogee County School District children, speaks to the Muscogee County School Board during its monthly meeting Monday, May 20, 2019, in the Muscogee County Public Education Center. Superintendent David Lewis responds.

The Muscogee County superintendent’s proposal to add 30 minutes to the daily schedule for elementary schools brought a chorus of opposition at the last school board meeting.

Six parents voiced objections during the Muscogee County School Board’s May 20 meeting — and no parent spoke in favor of it.

That came a week after Superintendent David Lewis agreed to postpone a vote on his proposal, after several board members expressed concerns.

Lewis said the administration will take a survey of parents and teachers on the proposal. He told the Ledger-Enquirer there’s not yet a time or method for when the survey would be taken.

The survey results will be shared with the board, Lewis said, in time for the June 10 work session. Lewis said he intends to provide the board various options. Then a vote on the final proposal would take place June 24, he said.

The current proposal would start elementary school classes 15 minutes earlier and end 15 minutes later.

The administration’s rationale, expressed on the agenda, is to “promote flexibility” for music, art, physical education, recess, field trips and computer coding, “as well as ease traffic congestion and reduce bus delays.” MCSD operations chief David Goldberg also said during the May 13 work session the proposed schedule would allow more students to eat breakfast at school.

Changing the elementary school times also would alter the schedule for middle schools and high schools because of the domino effect from bus transportation. So, if implemented, the start and end times for the 2019-20 school year would change in the following ways:

Elementary schools

Current schedule: Doors open and breakfast is served at 7:15 a.m.; classes start at 8 a.m.; classes end at 2:30 p.m.

Proposed schedule: Doors open and breakfast is served at 7 a.m.; classes start at 7:45 a.m.; classes end at 2:45 p.m.

Middle schools

Current schedule: Doors open and breakfast is served at 8:30 a.m.; classes start at 8:50 a.m.; classes end at 3:53 p.m.

Proposed schedule: Doors open and breakfast is served at 8:15 a.m.; classes start at 8:45 a.m.; classes end at 4 p.m.

High schools

Current schedule: Doors open and breakfast is served at 7:45 a.m.; classes start at 8:10 a.m.; classes end at 3:25 p.m.

Proposed schedule: Doors open and breakfast is served at 7:45 a.m.; classes start at 8:15 a.m.; classes end at 3:30 p.m.

Parents speak out

Virginia Korcha, mother of three MCSD students, was one of the six parents who spoke May 20.

She called for more “consideration given to this proposal, rather than moving it forward so quickly without any seeming debate.”

She correlated attendance with academic performance and said an earlier start time would result in more students being tardy or absent. She also noted that a later dismissal time would cut into after-school activities.

“If this is a transportation issue, let’s address it,” she said. “If it’s not, say it’s not, because the prevailing belief in the community is that that’s what is driving this train — pun intended.”

Lewis, who normally doesn’t respond to criticism during the public agenda, did so this time.

He insisted transportation is a secondary factor. The primary reason, he reiterated, is “to provide flexibility in scheduling of recess, music, art, things of that nature.”

Amanda Hoskins, a former MCSD elementary school teacher and a PTA member, said she created a Facebook forum called MCSD Proposed Extended Elementary Day, which has more than 800 members. She is the mother of a kindergartner, a second-grader and a fifth-grader.

“It’s not developmentally appropriate to expect 5-to-11-year-old children to retain more information for longer periods of time,” she said. “. . . Our children need a better day, not a longer one.”

She noted MCSD’s elementary schools used to start at 8:30 a.m. “Now we’re going away from that, to 7:45,” she said.

Christian Meisch is the father of five children going to three MCSD schools.

“We already have children who are being bused to Wynnton starting at 6 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “We are concerned that it’s going to be earlier. … You’re going to have kids sleeping at their desks.”

Goldberg said May 13 that some students would need to be at their morning bus stop 5 minutes earlier.

Sylvia Houser, mother of a kindergartner, said teachers at her daughter’s school are “amazing” and don’t need extra instructional time.

“They get the curriculum done in the time they’re allotted,” she said. “… They already go above and beyond.”

Bus transportation, Houser said, is “an adult problem that needs an adult resolution, … not on the backs of the elementary school kids.”

Jennifer Richardson balked at the notion that the proposal requires children to be at school “just 15 minutes” earlier. For working parents like her, she said, “that 15 minutes is huge in our time schedule.”

Richardson also described the impact that ending the school day 15 minutes later would have on her family.

“By the time you add in the extracurricular, you’re trying to prepare a healthy meal, you’re trying to help them with homework, you’re trying to help with AR (Accelerate Reader) books that are being read at night, studying for a test or a project they forgot to tell you about that’s due in a couple of days. And then you’re trying to have that quality time with them too, which is so important. You know, you want your snuggle time with your little ones too.

“So you’re trying to get all that in and meet the bedtime that’s recommended for our kids to go to sleep so that they can retain all of that information that they’ve learned. And as their mama, I feel like I fail at that a lot — a lot — most nights.”

Being a working mother of two boys, ages 7 and 3, is a “constant balancing act,” Chanel Hendrick said.

Her 7-year-old is a straight-A student, she said, “but he’s constantly tired despite having a reasonable bedtime. … When he does get in trouble at school, it’s for talking out of turn, it’s for fidgeting, it’s for all those things I would associate with a 7-year-old having to sit for an extended period of time.”

During the weeks her husband is working out of town, Hendrick said, it can be a “real struggle” to drop off her boys at different locations in the morning and get to her job on time.

“Frazzled parents and teachers do not make for good parents and teachers,” she said. “… Parents shouting to get their kids out the door, which is only going to increase, is not the way you want to send you kids off to school.”

Board members respond

The opposition from parents prompted board members to respond when the proposal came up on the agenda.

District 7 representative Cathy Williams said, “I think there’s a lot of confusion out there, and sometimes the intent gets lost in confusion.”

Williams favors extending the school day by 30 minutes, she said, because the current state minimum of 6½ hours isn’t “appropriate to teach the lowest level.” So she asked whether it is feasible to add the 30 minutes at the end of the day, although she acknowledged it could interfere with after-school activities.

Ninety percent of teachers and administrators who shared their opinion with Williams are in favor of the proposal, she said. Williams, who used to be the board’s countywide representative, said parents outside of District 7 are mostly against it.

But teachers reached out to District 2 representative Mike Edmondson, and he said they are “utterly and absolutely opposed to time being added when time is not being advantageously used already.”

“If the idea is to give people more instructional time, then let’s get rid of things that are not direct instruction,” said Edmondson, a retired teacher. “Let’s get rid of some testing.”

The administration is planning to eliminate some testing, Lewis said.

“Testing is an event; it’s not every day,” he said. “It’s too often, but it’s not every day.”

District 4 representative Naomi Buckner criticized the administration for putting the time-change proposal on the agenda without input from the board and the public in advance.

“Teachers, they were blindsided by what was happening,” she said. “Even assistant principals called me and said the teachers are asking them if they knew about this decision, and they were embarrassed because they didn’t know about it.”

Buckner asked for research about the impact of a longer school day on academic achievement.

Vice chairwoman and District 5 representative Laurie McRae said she is hearing different things from different people. She wants to know which schools are doing what in regards to recess.

“Some of the schools are already doing that,” she said. “… Some people are complaining it’s on their schedule but they’re not getting it.”

Kia Chambers, the nine-member board’s lone countywide representative, asked the superintendent whether he would bring the board additional options. Lewis said he will share different scenarios for alternative schedules and what research says about the impact of school times on academic achievement.

Lewis defended his process by saying previous changes to the school schedules didn’t have public forums or discussions in advance.

The proposal originated, Lewis said, from teachers telling him that they don’t have enough time. Music and art teachers don’t have enough time between classes to prepare, he said.

“I can assure you, as informed educators, we are trying to make the best decision in the best interest of our students and teachers and giving them the gift of time,” Lewis said.

District 8 representative Philip Schley interjected, “That was well said. I believe we’ve about beaten this to death.”

What research says

Research about this topic seems to support both sides of this argument. For example:

The American Psychological Association reported in June 2014 that data from 718 public elementary schools in Kentucky showed middle- and upper-class elementary school students demonstrated worse academic performance when they were required to start classes earlier than their peers. The report didn’t specify the school start times.

But the study’s lead researcher, University of Kentucky professor Peggy Keller, said the earlier start times surprisingly didn’t affect the academic performance of children from low-income families, “possibly because these children already have so many other risk factors.”

However, an April 2017 article in the Journal of Human Resources said Naval Postgraduate School assistant professor Jennifer Heissel and Northwestern University doctoral candidate Sam Norris found, “School districts can improve performance while maintaining the current distribution of start times by moving classes earlier for younger children and later for older children.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average start time in 2015-16 for all public schools was 8:10 a.m: elementary schools 8:17 a.m.; middle schools 8:04 a.m.; high schools 7:59 a.m.

In August 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement that recommends middle schools and high schools should start at 8:30 a.m. or later. “Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty,” the statement says.

But the AAP hasn’t recommended a start time for elementary schools.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.

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