Some parents and school board members want to reconsider the early release policy approved last month by the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education. The policy would let students out of school one hour early one day each week so that teachers can use that time for professional development and implementing the new Common Core curriculum.

However, a group of parents led by Karen Judy Foley say that time for professional development should not come at the expense of the classroom time for students.

“Thousands of public and charter schools across the country and in our own city of Chicago are extending the school day and school year,” Foley said at the school board’s May 20 meeting. “District 96 is below peer districts in pupil attendance days. The proposed early release calendar for next year is going to result in seven days lost for our students next year. This is not in the best interests of students.”

Foley said District 96 students will go to school next year for 174 days, which is a couple of days less than students in LaGrange, Hinsdale, Oak Park and River Forest. 

“One hundred seventy-four days is the absolute minimum that state requires,” Foley said. “We are at the minimum.”

Foley also said state records indicate that students at L.J. Hauser Junior High School receive 80 fewer instructional minutes per week in math than the state average and 88 fewer minutes a week than the state average in reading.

“Teachers were well represented when this decision was made, but I would argue that parents were not and students were not,” Foley said.

Foley asked the administration to form a committee to look at the issue and asked the district to compromise to ensure that teachers get the training they need without interrupting the school day.

She suggested that the district could pay teachers extra to do professional development after the end of the contractual school day or on a Saturday. Foley also suggested the district consider lengthening the school day or the school year. But the district cannot compel teachers to stay longer than their contract requires.

School board Vice President Rachel Marrello, who voted against the early release plan, voiced support for Foley’s suggestions.

“I would like to ask the administration to explore alternatives that do not result in the loss of instructional time,” Marrello said. “I would like to see other alternatives explored.”

At the school board meeting Helen Hart-Bryan, a third-grade teacher at Blythe Park School and the vice president of the Riverside Education Council (REC), the union representing teachers and paraprofessionals, spoke in favor the early release plan approved in April. 

Hart-Bryan said District 96 teachers desperately need training in the Common Core, because the prior administration did next to nothing to prepare teachers for the new standards.

“We’ve been left in the dark for the last three or four years by a previous superintendent,” Hart-Bryan said. “We’ve begged for Common Core, we’ve asked for Common Core training, yet none was delivered so I’m asking you please give the staff a chance.”

Marrello and other board members supported forming a committee to look at alternatives to early release, and board President Mary Rose Mangia asked the administration to try to form such a committee.

However, the day after the board meeting the president and president-elect of the REC sent a memo to the school board and administration saying that the REC would not participate in such a committee.

“The REC supports the professional development plan approved with a 5 to 2 vote at the April 15 District 96 board meeting,” said the memo written by Patty Gill and Bill Howes. “All interested parties had time to express their concerns before a vote was taken. The approved professional development plan is in line with the current REC contract that expires in June 2015.”

Foley was disappointed in the REC’s decision.

“I was hoping we could work together in the best interests of the children of Riverside,” said Foley, a pediatrician and the wife of Riverside Village Trustee Michael Foley. 

A few board members are reconsidering their votes on the early release plan and believe the issue should be looked at again.

“Yeah I think it should be revisited,” said Randy Brockway. “I don’t see why it can’t be. Just because we made a vote doesn’t mean we can’t undo it. I was one of the five who voted for it. I was uncomfortable voting for it.”

Board member Art Perry, who also voted for the early release plan, threw out the idea of extending the school day by 15 minutes on the four other days of the week to make up for the one hour early release. But that could require the district to pay teachers extra to stay after the contractual day, and it is unclear if teachers could be required to stay later. 

Marrello said a new committee should be formed despite the REC’s unwillingness to participate. 

“My recommendation was that if they don’t want to participate, then go head and put the committee together with the [administrative] staff and the parents and just proceed without them,” Marrello said. “That’s their decision. I hope they reconsider.”

Board member Lisa Gaynor said it is essential for everyone to work together.

“We have to have a way to be able to give the teachers some professional development to get Common Core started,” Gaynor said. “I’d like to see us to work together to come to a solution to ensure that we get some professional development and we respect instructional time and I think that we can do that.”

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