Northshore schools will likely change next year’s school calendar to make the school day 10 minutes longer with a two-hour early release or late arrival once per week.
The two-hour weekly release will replace the five current non-student days per year and give teachers time for training, planning and collaboration while maintaining the same amount of total instructional time for students. Before the new calendar is final, the proposal still has to be negotiated with the teachers’ union, the Northshore Education Association; ratified by the teachers; and approved by the school board, according to Leanna Albrecht, communications director for the Northshore School District.
But some Northshore parents and students are frustrated the school district is willing to make these schedule changes when it has been unwilling to switch to a later start time for high schools. They’re also concerned how the weekly release will affect working parents who will now need to find another source of child care and whether the change will reduce the quality of education for children.
The proposed weekly release schedule will keep the same amount of instructional time by lengthening the school day by 10 minutes and eliminating the five non-student days per year. The district hasn’t decided yet if the additional 10 minutes and the two-hour release will be at the beginning or end of the school day, but Albrecht confirmed that high schools will not start any earlier than they already do. The weekly release day could be Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.
Northshore would have 31 to 35 early release or late arrival days per school year. Many neighboring school districts, including Bellevue, Issaquah, Lake Washington, Mercer Island, Riverview and Snohomish, already have calendars with around 30-40 release days per year.
"Teachers and principals need ... opportunities to learn new content and skills, partner and practice with others, assess, refine, reflect and revise their craft," Northshore Superintendent Larry Francois wrote in a message to colleagues and to the community.
"Being able to engage in these professional growth opportunities on a more regular, consistent basis is the purpose of moving to this different model of instructional planning and collaboration time."
Tim Brittell, president of the Northshore Education Association (NSEA), added that time for planning, collaboration and professional development is especially important now because of three major projects: changes to the evaluation system that will start next year, new common course standards, and Northshore’s reconfiguration from a junior high (seventh through ninth grades) to middle school (sixth through eighth grades) model.
Although teachers currently have five non-student days for planning and professional development, Brittell said it’s more efficient to do teacher training on a consistent schedule rather than having long gaps in between.
"Whenever you try to do something with stops and starts, it takes twice as long," he said.
Some parents are concerned the weekly early-release or late-start days will pose problems for working parents of young children, who will now have to find child care once a week instead of only five days a year. Albrecht said the district is "working with community partners to develop a menu of resources for families who may need student supervision support during a weekly 2-hour release day."
Wendy Reynolds, whose children go to Moorlands Elementary, might be one of those parents. She works only on Fridays as an ultrasound technician, "to keep my foot in the door" and enable her to go back to work full-time when her kids are older. If Fridays were chosen as the release day, she would have to get five hours of daycare instead of two, which she said would make her reconsider working.
At her job, she also has to do professional development, but she does it on her own time. She feels teachers should do the same.
"The teachers want to be treated like professionals, but with the contract they’re acting like they’re hourly employees," Reynolds said. "As professionals, we have to work until we get the job done."
But she thinks an even bigger issue than weekly release days are the early start times of Northshore high schools. She and other parents cite a growing body of research, such as studies from the University of Minnesota, that show teens have a biological need to go to sleep later and wake up later than older adults. The resulting sleep deprivation from waking up early makes it harder for teens to learn, and correlates with emotional and behavioral problems such as depression and alcohol and drug use.
A Woodinville High School senior, who was worried that using his name would prevent him from graduating, wrote in an email that he was "appalled at how this is happening when it was considered too burdensome to shift all school start times 20 minutes later."
Albrecht said parent representatives met with school staff to discuss starting high school later, but mutually agreed to stop discussions once the proposed cost of transportation for the later start exceeded $200,000 to $300,000.
She wasn’t sure how much the early release or late arrival calendar would cost in later transportation, transporting students to school five more days per year, and child care, but said "the district expects to implement the changes with a minimal overall cost."
Although a weekly release day may make collaboration more efficient for teachers, some think it will make students’ instructional time less efficient, even though the amount of instruction time will stay constant.
Leanne Hust is a school counselor and former teacher for the Seattle School District and has a child who attends Kenmore Elementary. Seattle School District has only five early release days per year, but Hust said those days aren’t productive.
"Six periods in a shortened day is basically a waste," she said. "... Students actually told me that at least half of their classes do nothing on the early release days when they only have 30 minute periods!"
In a partial school day, class changes, breaks and transportation still take the same amount of time, said Jami Lund, an education policy analyst for Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for free markets, limited government and individual responsibility. That means all the cuts come from instructional time. Partial days are also an inefficient use of gas for the buses and insurance for the buildings to be open, since students are coming to school more days for the same amount of instructional time.
Many parents hope that a compromise might be possible.
"It would be a step in the right direction if the two-hour collaboration schedule was at the beginning of the school day, to allow students one day a week to start late," said A. Whelan, a Northshore parent.
Although Brittell said the teachers’ union isn’t campaigning for an early release versus a late arrival, a post from May 8 on the NSEA website read, "We have informed Admin that the strong preference of NSEA members is early release."
Parents, students, staff and the community are invited to give feedback about the calendar through a survey on the Northshore School District website until May 27.