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School early-release days can be a curse or creative

Lee Elementary offers special hands-on activities on early-release Wednesdays. Kindergartener Raul Pacheco, 5, right, waits to shake a bag of rock salt and ice to make ice cream recently.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Lee Elementary offers special hands-on activities on early-release Wednesdays. Kindergartener Raul Pacheco, 5, right, waits to shake a bag of rock salt and ice to make ice cream recently.

We had some interesting reactions to our recent story about — what are we calling them? Late-start Mondays? Sleep-in Mondays? Dude, where's my car?

Okay, a modicum of respect is in order. A volunteer panel worked hard to find a balance between Hillsborough teachers' need for planning time and families' need to have a clue about when school lets out.

Members of the Early Release Days Committee pondered everything from what it's like to have a bagged lunch thrown at you on a compressed Wednesday to the cost of morning child care.

And, though a few people sent angry e-mails to the school district over what this mom wants to call Sorry-boss-I-have-kids Monday, it was nothing compared to the backlash over It's-5-o'clock-Somewhere Wednesday.

Whoa! you say.

But listen to James Robinson of Lithia, whose wife is a former teacher, and who has grandchildren in the local public schools.

"The teachers and the school boards have guaranteed, absolutely guaranteed, a renewed Senate Bill 6," he said, referring to last year's attack on tenure.

"Everyone in the workforce at a salary level does their planning during the course of their workday," he said. "They don't get to come in late on Mondays or get half days on Wednesdays. Teachers need to buck up and look at how the rest of the world works."

Jean Clements, president of the teachers union, has heard this talk about the real world and she says: "Come spend a week with a teacher in a classroom, and I can show you the real world."

It's a world, she said, where teachers are working longer hours, reaching more hard-to-teach students and meeting ever higher standards. Technology has created a greater demand for data about individual students.

Extra periods have been crammed into the day as schools try to, well, I'll say it, catch up with the rest of America.

"Everybody who has done research says that you have to find a way to do planning within the workday," Clements said.

"The real world is, we are doing a much better job than we ever did before, ever."

• • •

While the rest of us talk the issue to death, one school has taken a creative approach.

Lee Elementary School, a central Tampa magnet, sets aside early-release Wednesdays for special hands-on activities.

They call these sessions "enrichment clusters," as they bring together kids from various classes and age groups. Between 9 and 11 a.m., children can choose from chess, Claymation, ceramics and other such endeavors.

"We've been doing clusters for a couple of years," said lead magnet teacher Lara Barone. "But this is the first time we have tried it on half days."

Teachers create PowerPoint displays about the activities, and students get to rank their choices. The change, in part, reflects a desire to fill seats on a day when some parents were just letting their kids stay home.

"We want to make it fun for the students so they will tell their parents, 'No, no, Mom, I need to go to school on that early-release day. I don't want to miss that cluster,' " she said.

And it's working. Early-release day attendance at Lee is consistently higher than elsewhere in the district, Barone said.

The clusters will continue even if early release days go away, she said, though maybe at a different day and time.

• • •

Want to hear more?

The School Board has scheduled a workshop for 10 a.m. Tuesday in the School Board auditorium, 901 E Kennedy Blvd., in Tampa. They'll discuss not only planning time, but other aspects of the calendar that have them befuddled.

For instance: Why would they open the schools on Good Friday, but close them on a weekday so students can somehow transport themselves to east Hillsborough for the Florida State Fair?

We did Student Day at the fair once, and a carnival tent collapsed on my daughter and her friends. It truly did.

I'm blaming them if she doesn't make valedictorian.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 624-2739.

School early-release days can be a curse or creative 01/20/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:59pm]
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