School days in East Lyme are about to get longer. According to the new schedules released last week, elementary and middle schools will be in session an extra 25 minutes each day. New London schools also are looking to lengthen the school day.
This may seem minor to school administrators. But consider what this means to the family: 25 minutes a day is a total of 4,500 minutes, or 75 hours, a year. This is the equivalent of 11.5 additional school days. Put another way, parents are losing more than two school weeks with their children. I'm all for offering the best educational opportunities to my kids, but not at the expense of the family. Besides, is enhancing educational opportunity what this is really about?
In a meeting with parents last spring, East Lyme Schools Superintendent John Reynolds, the man behind this idea, told us that the extra 25 minutes would provide elementary school children with an additional daily "special," defined as library, art, music, computers, and gym. Currently, students get one special a day. Parents were also told that 25 additional minutes would give students (1) an expanded instrumental music program and (2) a new global language program in elementary school.
It sounded impressive. Too bad we were never told that teachers opposed the superintendent's plan. Why? Perhaps because when the extended school day was pitched to teachers, they were told something different from what parents were told. Specifically, they were told that the math instructional time in East Lyme's elementary schools wasn't measuring up to that in other schools in their Educational Reference Group. According to the state, our district is reporting only 150 hours of math instruction per year. How can this be? My son's third-grade class spends an hour daily on math. Multiply that times the 180 days of school and the answer is 180 hours, not 150.
Yet the minutes of a meeting between school administrators and teachers held a year ago reported that "the schedule (increase) is meant to address increasing elementary hours to line up with our ERG." An ERG is a grouping method that rates schools based on similar demographic measures, such as population and family income. If the motive for lengthening school days is to enhance our appearance within our ERG, then the idea should be scrapped.
If, on the other hand, the day is truly being lengthened to give our kids another "special," then we ought to look more closely at how specials are currently being treated. At Niantic Center School, for example, "library special" is nothing more than a weekly 15-minute trip to the library to check out a few books. Library instruction has been eliminated at NCS. On the other hand, Lillie B. Haynes and Flanders elementary schools still have library instruction for their students.
Computer instruction cut
Similarly, the computer instruction has been cut at NCS, leaving no current "computer special" either. NCS has a part-time computer consultant, but she provides only technical support, not student instruction. Instead, the classroom teacher is expected to instruct upwards of 20 children at one time. In today's world, computer skills are becoming as fundamental as reading and writing to a child's academic development. Yet this fundamental skill is treated as a "special" that is currently not offered at NCS.
How can we talk about two daily specials under the extended day when many do not even receive one daily special now? The school superintendent's other promise of expanding the music instrument and global language programs are even more suspect. Children will not learn Spanish in 30-60 minutes of instruction per week and while language exposure is appealing, it does not warrant nor require extending the day. At NCS, for example, the elimination of library and computer specials surely makes room for a language and music substitute under the current schedule.
While global language may fit into our current schedule, it may not, however, fit into the current budget. Right now one instructor teaches Spanish for up to 60 minutes weekly to all K-second-graders in all three elementary schools. By extending the school day 25 minutes, are we supposed to believe that this one instructor is now going to also be able to instruct all the third- and fourth-grade students in all three schools? Moreover, what current program, instructor, or resources (i.e. computers) will be cut to finance either hiring more language or music instructors, or to purchase more equipment, such as musical instruments? This is addition by subtraction.
Take care of basics first
Furthermore, why are we considering spending more money on "the arts" when many of the basic needs of our elementary school children are not being met. Take something as fundamental as air conditioning. Currently, there are only two rooms at NCS with air conditioning. One is the principal's office.
The other is a classroom where a teacher bought the unit herself after her doctor confirmed that the poor air quality was adversely affecting her health. When the weather is hot, the children's classrooms are more like saunas, especially on the second floor, where windows cannot even be opened for fresh air and circulation. Why? Many of the windows don't have screens or safety guards. There's apparently no money in the budget. This is a school with a well-documented mold problem, a school that starts every year off with an annual mold purging ritual. Without air conditioners and functioning windows, it's no wonder mold can be found in the classrooms in even the driest winter months. How can we expect our children to perform their best when they don't feel their best?
If window screens and air conditioners are cost prohibitive, let's talk about something that's not, like flashcards. My son's third-grade classroom does not have a complete set. When I asked why not, I was told there was no money left in the budget. This is a $2 item at Wal-Mart.
Similarly, paperback books in my son's classroom are missing pages due to old, worn bindings. These books haven't been replaced for the same reason — lack of money. And it's no secret among some parents that teachers have had to dip into their own pockets for supplies like markers and crayons.
Expanding a school day with hopes of bringing a global language program may sound great on paper. But let's be sure all our kids actually have paper and flashcards first. And let's not lose sight of what this change will mean on families. Already our family time is a shrinking resource. By the time my child gets home from school, does his homework and eats his dinner, it's time to start preparing for bed. Quality time with my children has become homework time. An additional 25 minutes added to the school day crowds parents out of our children's already crowded schedules. Where will we find time to laugh, play and otherwise nurture our children in ways only a family can?
New London parents and students have expressed similar objections to longer school days.
And where does it stop? The East Lyme superintendent is on record saying that his goal is to extend the day even further, to a full one hour, in years to come. Enough is enough. It's time for school officials to be more responsible to the desires of the parents and the needs of children. The institution of school is very important. But the family is the most important institution in our society. Let's not pit them against each other.