RALEIGH — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is continuing a two-year-old program expanding the elementary school day by 45 minutes to seven hours, even though many parents, teachers, and students have raised objections to the “late bell” program.
The program was expanded systemwide in 2011 with no public input despite an internal review that concluded a pilot program at one CMS elementary school resulted in “few positive outcomes.”
District officials have acknowledged some missteps in communicating the expanded school day schedule with parents but have no plans to abandon it. They have engaged the Council of Great City Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing urban school districts, to study the program and offer recommendations. CMS is a member of the council. Superintendent Heath Morrison and school board member Mary McCray are on the council’s board of directors.
The expanded day was a pilot program CMS implemented in 2007-08 at Billingsville Elementary School. A December 2008 report from the Office of Accountability, Center for Research and Evaluation, said CMS researchers chose Billingsville because fewer than 50 percent of its fifth-grade students were performing at or above grade level in 2006 on state tests. Officials wanted to see if an additional hour would have a positive effect on children’s achievement.
But researchers reported “few positive outcomes” during its first year of implementation. Among the findings were that many teachers did not utilize the extra hour for project-based instruction as the plan envisioned. Instead, they tended to engage in such activities reteaching, planning, and standardized test preparation.
Surveys and focus groups from the pilot program showed that staff perceptions were negative and “half believed that [the expanded day] should not be continued in the future.” Children were too tired at the end of the day to focus, disciplinary problems increased, and staff reported feeling “burned out.” Staff also reported no increase in parental involvement.
There was no public input before implementing the schedule districtwide; the plan was a line item in the transportation section of the 2011-12 budget. The board approved the budget July 26 — a few weeks before the school year opened — by an 8-1 vote.
Staff said the expanded day and late-bell schedule would save $4 million in transportation costs. Kaye McGarry, who served on the board from 2003-11, was the only member to vote against the 2011-12 budget.
McGarry told Carolina Journal in a phone interview that she voted no for several reasons, including the change in the elementary school schedule. “I wasn’t against a longer school day in principle, but the board and CMS leaders had no plan for what to do with the extra time and the transportation report was not thorough enough to show it would save money. The budget process is from January through May, yet three budget workshops had been canceled, so there was little planning,” McGarry said.
Parents and teachers had little opportunity to voice concerns over a plan that affected more than 71,000 students in 88 elementary schools. Opposition from parents and teachers has gotten stronger in the two years since the schedule was implemented.
A group of parents formed Community Advocates for Child First School Schedules in fall 2011 to urge the school board and CMS leaders to reconsider the schedule. CFSS member Susan Plaza told CJ that the late-bell schedule has posed a special burden on magnet school students and their parents because more travel is involved. Most magnet schools are on the 9:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. bell schedule, so many students aren’t getting home until after 6:00 p.m.
In September 2011, more than 1,000 people responded to an online petition asking the school board to change the late-bell schedule. Petitioner comments were similar to findings from the Billingsville evaluation, saying children were too tired to do homework, participate in extracurricular activities, or spend quality time with their families and teachers.
Judy Kidd, president of Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, a nonpartisan trade association, said “teachers are not only not getting compensated for the loss of planning time and longer days, but they’re being penalized in their annual leave by having to take time off for doctor appointments or care for their families and children, and they’re having to pay for additional day care for their own children.”
CTANC has conducted several teacher surveys showing teachers and staff have noticed greater student disengagement, an increase in off-task and behavioral problems, diminished student motivation, a loss of teacher planning time, a rise in teacher turnover, and lack of time for parent-teacher conferences as a result of the schedule change.
Kidd said parents and teachers have attended school board meetings to engage with school leaders, but they’ve becoming frustrated over the lack of response. “It’s easier for school officials to send parents down rabbit trails rather than coming up with a real solution,” Kidd said.
In February 2012, CFSS presented a proposal to CMS board member McCray that would save money on transportation while resolving the late-bell problem. The group was told its plan would save $1 million and that was not enough, Plaza said.
Shortly after Morrison took over as superintendent in 2012, CFSS met with him. After presenting data from CTANC teacher surveys and outlining five possible solutions, Morrison agreed to work with the group. Morrison also set up a task force including CFSS, CMS staffers, and CMS teachers to recommend changes for the 2013-14 budget year.
Nothing has developed. CFSS says school officials are throwing up roadblocks. CMS counters that plans suggested by CFSS don’t yield the needed savings or would cause too much upheaval.
In April 2013, the group sent a memo to Morrison with their findings and recommendations and another in May to the school board saying the schedule possibly violates two different state statutes. To date, the group has not gotten a response.
Asked why there’d been no public input before implementing this change, CMS Chief of Staff Earnest Winston said by phone the changes came about during a tough budget year and the board “gave its blessing as part of the budget discussion.” He also said CMS transportation staff came up with the plan.
Winston defended the extended day and late-bell schedule as the best solution at the time to protect classrooms and teachers.
“We agree we could’ve done a better job at getting feedback in advance, but that’s why we want to take be cautious before making further changes because one model these parents suggested would cause too much upheaval for high school students,” Winston said.
Winston also notified CJ that CMS has engaged Robert Carlson, director of management services for the Council of the Great City Schools, to assemble a team of top transportation officials to study the issue and make recommendations.
Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.