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The Evanston/Skokie District 65 School Board got an earful Monday night over those monthly half days when school is dismissed  early so teachers can learn to do their jobs better.

Known as “School Improvement Days,” they usually occur the first Wednesday of the month for seven months of the school year—October, November, December, January, February, April, and May.

On those days, the kids are sent home at 11 a.m. in the magnet schools, 11:30 a.m. in the middle schools, and 12:05 p.m. in the elementary schools. The teachers, however, stay on through the afternoon to engage in “professional development.”

The board held a special hearing Monday night to receive comments from the public on the school calendar, and one parent questioned exactly what the teachers do during those monthly half days after the students have gone home.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy promised to begin letting the parents know in advance the agenda for those development sessions.

Pat Markham, the district’s communications director and its point person when it comes to drafting the school calendar each year in cooperation with her counterpart at Evanston Township High School District 202, gave an explanation as to how the calendar is developed.

She begins with the constraints of the Illinois School Code and the negotiated agreement with the District Educators’ Council (DEC), which represents the district’s classroom teachers.

The state requires students to attend a minimum of 176 days, while the district pays its teachers for 180 days, to include two institute days at the beginning of the school year and two parent-teacher conference days.

The state defines the school day as 300 minutes, but the school day at District 65 is 350 minutes. The district “banks” those extra minutes to provide time for early dismissal on those half-day school improvement days, Markham said.

The public comments Monday night focused on those half days off for students. Not only do they “rob” the students of 3.5 days of instruction, said one parent, but they often have “dire consequences” at work for parents who take the day off to care for their kids, said another.

Markham explained that the half days are in the middle of the week because they enable teachers to put to work the very next day the techniques they learn in their professional development sessions. Also, student absences are lower on Wednesdays than if the days were scheduled on Monday or Friday, she said.

The only other suggestion made by the public was to eliminate the Pulaski Day holiday on the first Monday of March, so as to conform with ETHS, which does not take Pulaski Day off.

Markham concluded her presentation with the assertion that the school calendar is developed to meet many competing demands “for time, for consistency, to respect community values, to address the need for teacher professional development, and to ensure that our students will benefit from a high quality teaching and learning environment.”

Board President Katie Bailey said the calendar will be on the agenda for board discussion on April 8 and for a vote on April 22.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio...

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7 Comments

  1. Half Day – Zero Content?

    My kid's not the most talkative. He's a 7th grader at Haven. It seems like the half days are used for PBIS activities / assemblies and other non core class activities.  

    Does anyone have the sense that the half days are productive?

    1. All school read

      At our school I remember an all school read (different grades buddy up) and things like that.  I have also heard teachers talk about the benefits of training they receive on these half days – particularly regarding inclusion and differentiated instruction. 

  2. A waste of time

    I'm a teacher and a parent in D65, and I would have to agree that these early release days are a waste of time.  Don't let the administration fool you into believing that the teachers have requested this.  It is the superintendent and his assistants that are so fixated on gathering us together so often.  Most of the teachers I know would rather have the extra time to get grading done, or lessons planned, not more of the endless meetings we are required to attend.  I spend, on average, 4-5 hours per week attending meetings that contain about 15 minutes worth of information, total.  Many times we have to attend meetings simply to sit there so our principal can tell the administration that we had a meeting! 

  3. Pulaski Day

    Yes, please, get rid of Pulaski Day!

    Next time contract talks with the teachers come around, add that as an additional day of instruction. Ditto for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which got added as a day off when Columbus Day was removed. Evanston's school day is long enough, but its school year could be beefed up.

  4. School calendar petition

    I spoke at Monday night's meeting and brought over 100 signatures from parents who want the administration and school board to review the half day-professional development policy.

    If you want to sign the petition, which automatically gets sent to the school board and Dr. Murphy, click here:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/change-early-release-policy

    I also wrote to the board and administration after the meeting:

    Dear Dr. Murphy, Ms. Markham, and D65 School Board Members,

    Thank you for the informative presentation about the school calendar last night.  It is helpful to understand all the variables that go into creating the school calendar.

    I applaud the District calling for inventive solutions to create appropriate and high-quality child care options on the half days for working parents.  As I mentioned Rhodes PTA has offered half-day events for K-5 students.  In the spirit of ‘it takes a village,’ these events are typically run by volunteer parents so the costs are lower.

    However, this does not address the long-term issue of whether administrators, the school board and parents think it is in our children’s best interests to have 7 weeks in the school year that are disrupted by a half day of school.  Next school year there will be 20 weeks that are a full five days and there will be 18 weeks that are four days or less. 

    In terms of the burden on working parents, there are 4 months where the half days are adjacent weeks or very close to other holidays.

    November 2 – Half Day
    November 11 – Veteran’s Day

    Jan 15 – Half Day
    Jan 20 – MLK Day

    Feb 5 – Half Day
    Feb 14 – Parent-Teacher Conferences
    Feb 17 – President’s Day

    April 2 – Half Day
    April 7-11 – Spring Break
    April 18 – Good Friday

    It is clear that if D65 consolidated half days into full days that the district would ‘lose’ 3-4 instructional days that currently count toward the 176 instructional days. And it is clear that the current scenario allows professional development time to be wedged into the 176 instructional days.

    As I am sure you know, it is not impossible to change this policy.  There are districts such as CPS and Tinley Park that have successfully secured waivers from the Illinois General Assembly on this very issue.

    I think most parents support teachers and administrators continuously improving through high-quality professional development.  Mr. Rykhus mentioned this last night but teachers also engage in professional development throughout the school year.  That is something that should not be overlooked. One of my favorite concrete examples is that our first grader’s teacher is getting ‘coaching’ in teaching science from the District’s science curriculum coordinator, Melanie Mudarth, this year.  I also appreciated Ms. Weaver’s ideas about how to think outside the box about webinars and other technology-based professional development activities.

    In sum, it seems there are several big picture policy questions embedded into this issue:

    – What is professional development; how and when should it be counted; and when it takes place on a designated day, such as a half day, how does it advance the District-wide educational objectives and instructional goals for District 65?  Is there appropriate oversight to ensure this?

    – Does mid-week disruption matter for children?  There are already 11 weeks in the school year that will be disrupted due to holidays.  Is it okay to have 7 additional weeks of disruption, many times adjacent to weeks already disrupted due to holidays?  What gets lost on those days?  For my three children, math, social studies and science are scheduled in the afternoons.

    – What are the pros/cons of requesting a waiver from the Illinois General Assembly on this issue?

    – How much does this matter for working parents?  I started my petition because I have heard so many working parents complain about the half days.  I dutifully filled out the ESSENTIALS survey but never in my four years have I been directly asked by the District about my opinion on the half days.  Does the District know how much this matters to the entire parent community?  Should it ask?

    Again, I appreciated learning more on Monday evening.  It was wonderful to hear the outside-the-box ideas that you all suggested both for alternative child care arrangements and for thinking about the District’s professional development plans writ large.

    I will look forward to following your discussions and decisions at upcoming board meetings.
    Best regards,

    Jennifer Phillips

  5. Why not?

    Here's a novel idea…can professional development for teachers take place during the winter break and/or spring break?

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