Sheehan

Schooled, but not convinced

Staff WriterNovember 9, 2009 

I guess I should have seen the dog-and-pony show coming like a big ol' yellow school bus.

See, I've complained, repeatedly, over the past several months about Wacky Wednesdays, the Wake County schools' policy that sends students home an hour early - or more - once a week so teachers have time to confer and coordinate.

My argument: It's a scheduling nightmare for parents, giving kids less learning and more opportunity to get into trouble. In fact, I believe it was the final deaf-to-parents frustration that tipped Wake's school board elections, ushering in four new members who promise sweeping change.

So the Wake school system's director of communications, MichaelEvans, decided a little teaching was in order: For me.

He invited me to come out and see what actually happens when the students go home early at Fuquay-Varina High School, which has been using a block of planning time for three years (until this year, on Tuesday mornings rather than Wednesday afternoons) to improve communication.

I have to admit: It was impressive. Under the leadership of Principal Edward McFarland, the staff has formed professional learning teams that meet weekly and discuss, in detail, what's going right and wrong with their approaches in the classrooms.

Analyzing student performance on whole tests and individual questions, they figure out whose teaching is getting through to kids and whose is not.

The teams have built bridges between veteran and rookie teachers, said Carole Barber, a math teacher. The newbies get the mentoring they need, while the veterans get the benefit of new approaches and, often, new technologies from new colleagues.

Of the 14 teachers on Barber's team, eight have less than five years of experience, she said. "Yet we've had double-digit growth in math end-of-course scores."

"There are no more easy teachers and hard teachers," said Paige Elliott, an English teacher. "Working together brings everyone up to a higher standard."

The teachers are also better able to identify individual students who need more challenging work or more help.

The results are in the numbers, McFarland said. Over the past three years, end-of-course scores at Fuquay-Varina have increased 8.3 percent, compared with a 4.8 percent increase for the Wake system as a whole.

Like I said, impressive.

In fact, if Wacky Wednesdays worked this well at every school, I might just be convinced they are worth the hassle and expense. After all, this policy costs money for working parents, who have to pay extra for additional after-school care; it also costs the taxpayers for new school-zone signs that read like novellas. "Slow down on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 3:20 to 4:05; on Wednesdays, slow down from 2:20 to 3:05..."

But let's face it. Not every school has a principal quite as dynamic as McFarland. And not every school has the buy-in he has achieved.

Wake administrators concede that every school is at a different place in the journey to professional learning nirvana. Fuquay-Varina is perhaps farthest along that path.

But there are a few things I still can't get past. First, our kids' instructional time is still getting shortchanged by an hour every Wednesday, even more on Early Early Release days. Teenagers are being cut loose at the most dangerous time of the day (in terms of having sex, getting high or drunk, or at very least, eating junk food and sitting in front of a TV or computer screen).

Why not meet in the morning?

Bill Brown, a social studies teacher at Fuquay-Varina, noted that even the staff preferred meeting first thing in the morning once a week. It was a nice jump-start to the day.

Teenagers are also far less likely to get in trouble at 7 a.m. than early afternoon. And parents who work outside the home wouldn't have to shell out for extra after-school care for younger children orrearrange intricate family schedules.

Donna Hargens, Wake's chief academic officer and a member of the committee that came up with the plan for Wacky Wednesdays, said the group looked at every conceivable option but determined that mornings wouldn't work systemwide because of current bus schedules.

Given Tuesday's election and the assurance of a new school board majority, of course, those schedules may be changing.

Meantime, don't be surprised if, 10 weeks into the school year, you parents suddenly start getting updates on what great things the professional learning teams are accomplishing.

Hargens and Evans, for their part, had a hard time believing that parents like me find the weekly early release at all vexing or burdensome.

"The principals just aren't getting many complaints," Evans said.

Of course they're not. It wasn't their decision.

This was the current board's doing.

It'll be up to the new board to fix this wackiness.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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