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Soundings

Sol Stern
The Vanishing School Day
Autumn 1999

When parents on Manhattan's Upper West Side sent their kids back to P. S. 87 last month, they doubtless assumed that teachers were ready to get back into the classroom and teach. But of 15 scheduled school days in September, five saw P. S. 87 kids sent home after just half a day, because teachers had meetings to attend. As a letter from P. S. 87 principal Steven Plaut calmly reassured parents, teachers needed two half-days to talk to one another "about the strengths and academic needs of each student." The teachers also required, Plaut stressed, three additional half-days to talk to parents about the children.

Now, you don't have to be a fully trained pedagogue to know that, early in the school year, parents and teachers should talk and teachers should huddle to compare notes about students. By the same commonsense standard, though, couldn't the meetings take place without cutting into instructional time? Couldn't the teachers "articulate" (as ed-speak puts it) after the kids go home at 3 pm, say, or better yet, a day or two before the school year officially opens?

Of course, the teachers' union contract, not common sense, governs New York's public schools. Plaut couldn't ask his teachers to meet after 3 pm, because the contract demands that "the school day shall be six hours and 20 minutes." Nor could he ask teachers to come in a few days early, since the contract also requires that teachers report no sooner than the day after Labor Day.

The problem of lost time is getting worse. Everything from staff development to grading tests to filling out Board of Ed forms now serves as an excuse to send children home, so that the lost hours of instruction easily add up to two weeks of class time. Moreover, kids always get sent home for lots of half-days rather than for a fewer number of entire days, so that the Board of Education can claim that New York runs a full 180-day school year when it asks for state funds.

Chancellor Rudy Crew reportedly is looking into extending the school year into the summer. But before the Board of Ed takes away a single day from New York kids' summer vacation, it should figure out how to win back class time lost because of its frustrating inability to stand up to the teachers' union.

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