NEW PORT RICHEY — About a dozen Deer Park Elementary School teachers convened Thursday for what has become an increasingly common conversation about how much work they have to do each day.
They've met like this for nearly two years. And their loads have only increased.
"It's getting to the point where it's such unrealistic expectations," said Kathy Kennedy, the group's facilitator and school representative to the United School Employees of Pasco. "There has been more and more and more added to our workload with no extra resources and no extra help."
The teachers spoke of paperwork added because of federal laws, state mandates and district initiatives; a spate of new tests such as the state's FAIR assessment; and a variety of meetings they must attend to talk about student performance. Time to plan lessons, they said, has dwindled as a result.
What they wanted, more than anything, is some relief. Yesterday, if possible.
District leaders say they're listening.
"We have started with the elementary principals to say we need to take stock of all of the things we are doing," assistant superintendent David Scanga said. "It's very timely to take a look at all the things you do and make a decision of whether you have to keep doing them or not."
Each school might have different things it finds important and necessary, he said. So discussions must take place at individual campuses, with no real mandate from on high.
Schools must follow state and federal requirements on things such as testing, Scanga added. But working together, the teachers and their administrations should be able to find areas to ease back.
He mentioned meetings and assessments as two key focal points for consideration.
USEP, which has urged such a review, has pushed for reductions in those areas and others.
"We are trying to continue the process to see what potentially could come off the plate," lead negotiator Jim Ciadella said, mentioning paperwork as another possibility.
It's an issue across Pasco County.
"We have seen the increase of our workload just continue to rise," said West Zephyrhills Elementary teacher Lisa Mazza, who sits on a district committee looking into the topic.
Mazza said she's supposed to arrive at work at 7:30 a.m., but she actually gets there closer to 6:30 a.m. so she can have enough time to complete required tasks before preparing for the day's lessons. She works into the evenings and brings materials home with her, too.
"It becomes a 12-hour day very easily," Mazza said.
Even after all those hours, she added, there's not always enough time for planning.
And that's not acceptable, said Donna Busby, principal of Veterans Elementary School in Wesley Chapel.
"We want to not lose focus of the most important thing we do, which is teaching students," Busby said.
She has led her staff through several discussions on how to make changes to the workload, in order to keep that focus. Already, the school has consolidated committees and reduced its number of meetings, which Busby said can otherwise eat up teachers' morning prep time.
The faculty also is looking at cutting back on the tests it uses, aiming to rely on those that it must use because of state or federal rules rather than those that are optional.
"It is pretty overwhelming," Busby said. "The teachers here like to use the data. I think we really need to focus on the information that is going to be the most helpful to meet the needs of the kids."
Teacher input is critical, she added, because they're the ones who really know what they need and what they can do without. She expected to have some measures in place for the next school year.
Fox Hollow Elementary principal Lisa Miller said her staff also is paying close attention to assessments. The goal, she said, is to give teachers more choices in which ones they don't have to offer.
"It's an ongoing conversation," she said.
The Deer Park teachers suggested there are plenty of small areas that could generate big time savings beyond changes to testing and meetings.
Teacher Beth Brewster noted, for example, that the district's new reading manuals lay out lesson plans, yet teachers still must write out detailed lesson plans because of other district requirements. Perhaps that duplication could be eliminated, she said.
Teacher Bill Miller questioned the district's requirement on giving each student eight grades per subject area each quarter, even if some lessons last a couple of weeks. That often leads to unnecessary graded tests or assignments, he said.
Teacher Nancy Carr observed that she could save a couple of days each year if she simply were allowed to leave some of her classroom materials unpacked over the summer.
"It takes a day or two to unpack at the start of the year," Carr said. "They 'let' us come in a week early. If you don't, you're dead."
For many of the educators, the issue boiled down to treating them like professionals.
"They can stop micromanaging us," Kennedy said. "Because of (Learning Focused Strategies), we are told how to arrange our rooms. We are told how to do our bulletin boards, how to do our lesson plans. If we were free to use the teaching methods that work for us . . . that would free up time."
Teacher Patti Martin said she wished the effort would be taking place now. She noted that because of furloughs, teachers will have only one planning day at the end of the year, rather than two, to close their books, pack up their classrooms and complete all their work.
"The district is focusing a lot on what they can do next year," she said. "They need to focus on this year, too."
Scanga said he welcomed ideas, and added that he would look for themes that might lend themselves to sharing among the schools. The schools should never stop asking questions about how they can operate more effectively and efficiently, he said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.