Everett schools would be just the latest to try early releases

EVERETT — It’s happening at more and more school districts around the state.

Early releases.

The Everett School District appears next in line to ring the day’s last bell early one day a week — Fridays from October through May — to give teachers more time for professional development.

According to a new contract approved by teachers this week, students will be let out of classes 75 minutes earlier than normal on those Fridays. The contract still must be adopted by the school board, whose next meeting is Sept. 11.

Everett appears ready to follow the Marysville, Lake Stevens and Snohomish school districts, which all let students out early one day a week for most of the last school year.

“Everett is not the first district to have gone this way,” said Mary Waggoner, spokeswoman for the district, which has about 19,000 students in Everett and Mill Creek.

“There isn’t any more funding for a longer school day and we have to figure out how to keep the number of contract hours for students,” she said. “Carving out that team time for teachers is something the district has been working toward.”

School board vice president Ed Peterson said teachers at even the highest-achieving schools in the district asked for this professional development time.

“We now have a predictable time that’s available for collaboration,” he said. “It’s the same day from October to May, parents will know it and can plan their lives accordingly. I think it’s exactly the answer we’re looking for.”

Kim Guymon, a mother of a middle school student and a high school student in the Everett School District, said she would love to see proof that collaboration days translate into increased test scores and grades.

Guymon, 46, is founder of the Everett School Board Project, a group formed to create change within the Everett School Board.

“I hear some people wondering if by January this is going to turn into group therapy with coffee,” she said. “I hope they have clear and defined goals. The union and administration made a call that was not well explained to the public.”

Details of the new three-year deal first became public on Thursday when teachers from the 1,100-member Everett Education Association gathered at Everett’s Civic Auditorium to vote on the deal.

The early release portion of the contract is only for the first year, but could be renegotiated to be added to future years. The contract also calls for 2 percent raises each year of the contract and gives elementary school teachers $15 for each student day that classes are above a set size limit.

Under the agreement, a first-year teacher in Everett for the 2012-13 school year would make about $43,000, while a teacher at the top end of the scale with 29 years experience and a doctorate could make up to about $90,500.

The idea of having an early release day has been talked about within the district for about three years, Waggoner said. Every school in the district does an annual presentation before administration and school board members. This past spring, the idea of needing more time for teachers to work together was brought up often, she said.

The time should allow teachers to work together to improve their teaching and, in turn, help students who may be struggling in some areas and not in others, Waggoner added.

“It is collaboration time,” she said. “The people at the schools are working together to decide how this will be used.”

In an email sent to parents Thursday night, Superintendent Gary Cohn said that on the new Learning Improvement Fridays, teachers would be “working together, focusing on instructional improvement, discussing and analyzing student learning results, planning lessons together, and designing ways of teaching that improve each student’s learning.”

Guymon, who is skeptical about the need for the teacher development time, acknowledged that parents seem to approve of Friday being the early release day. She based the assumption on comments left on her group’s Facebook page and conversations she’s had with other parents.

Another parent, Cassandra VanKeuren, a mother of a fourth-grader at Jackson Elementary School, said she likes the idea that there will be fewer two-and-a-half-hour early release days.

“It’s such a better system than what was in place before,” VanKeuren said. “It will be less complicated and seems easier for parents and teachers, and for kids to get learning done.”

VanKeuren, 35, added that half days are too short for instruction, but she wasn’t worried about her son losing 75 minutes on the Fridays. The change also benefits families who want to get out of town on weekends.

“If there had to be a shortened day, this is the optimal way to do it,” she said.

In Lake Stevens, students also have early release on Fridays. The district moved to an early-release Friday schedule beginning in 2010, after one year of having an hour late start Wednesday, said Arlene Hulten, district spokeswoman.

“When we had the late start Wednesday, there were a lot of complaints from parents,” she said. “We found that Fridays were much more advantageous for the community and parents.”

The district surveyed parents and worked with the Lake Stevens Education Association and other unions before beginning one-hour early release Fridays in 2011.

A three-year contract ratified in July now ends the school day 85 minutes early.

The added time is to help teachers work toward achieving new state standards. The deal included adding five minutes to every regular school day to avoid losing instructional time, Hulten added.

Teacher time on the early release days is divided between district-directed, individual and collaborative days, said Kelly Snow, president of the Lake Stevens Education Association.

“Our language is very specific when it comes to how we’re using those days,” she said. “Teachers have to have time to collaborate. A lot of times it doesn’t happen within a regularly scheduled day. Collaboration doesn’t mean you’re getting together and having a cup of coffee and talking about the students in your day.”

The Snohomish School District allows students to get out of classes two hours earlier on Fridays so teachers can receive training from the district and discuss educational projects.

The practice benefits everyone because the staff works to achieve a common goal, said Justin Fox-Bailey, president of the Snohomish Education Association.

The change happened in the 2007-08 school year, Fox-Bailey said.

“Everyone benefits,” he said. “Students benefit by having a better lesson plan prepared.”

Reporter Alejandro Dominguez contributed to this story.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

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