Saturday November 10, 2012

Last month, our house played host to at least three -- and as many as nine -- extra kids on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. There were a few extra large dogs in and out too, for good measure.

It was fun for all, actually ... and I greatly enjoyed our group hike up Round Mountain on a lovely October day.

Still, I find myself sometimes counting how many days the kids are not in school.

There was a day in September, just after we started. Another three (for the elementary kids in Brattleboro) -- or two (for the middle school in Brattleboro and much of the rest of the district) -- in October.

There are conference days in November, then there is the Wednesday day before Thanksgiving that the kids have off. Follow that with December’s end-of-year break.

Just when it feels like the schedule is back in place here at our house, there are two days off in January. Then February brings an entire week of vacation; March has Town Meeting Day, and another round of conferences.

April has another week of vacation; May brings a half day and Memorial Day off. Then June brings the end of the school calendar for the students -- but the teachers have a couple of days that they are still in the buildings.

Some of these days I understand: holidays are holidays. What about the rest? I was referred to Lyle Holiday and Paul Smith, who work with curriculum and assessment at the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.


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While I completely recognize that my perception of "days off from school" is directly proportional to the number of kids I have running around my house, I wondered if there weren’t more of these days lately?

Holiday assures me that in the 10 years she’s worked in this position, only one day was added -- and only for the Brattleboro elementary schools. The total for everyone else is nine days throughout the year (Brattleboro elementary schools have 10).

Teachers and administration have this in the teachers’ contracts, she noted, since all agree these days are important. "If you think about the medical model," Holiday notes, "you wouldn’t want your doctor to continue treating you in the same way they did things 10 years ago, even five years ago.

"The same applies for education ... we need keep our teachers current in best practices."

Both pointed to preparation for changes to "Common Core State Standards," specializing in literacy, math, technology and diversity.

The "Common Core" replaces Vermont standards ("grade level expectations" that we parents see on report cards) ... with a national set of standards adopted by 46 states-including Vermont.

Smith is quick to note that this does not imply that we’ve had "bad standards" in the past. "In fact," he continues, "Vermont does a pretty good job teaching students using our current standards. Vermont students regularly score right near the top in the National Assessment of Educational Progress."

Still, I wondered: what do the teachers actually learn? They sent me the list of this year’s topics for professional development:

-- Academy School is focusing on "Math as a Second Language."

-- Putney and Guilford teachers are asking, "What does mathematical proficiency look like and how can we use our current math programs and common core standards to get kids to that proficiency?"

-- At Green Street and Oak Grove -- and Vernon and Guilford -- teachers are learning to use two new reading programs, which increase comprehension. Other schools that already completed this found it "highly effective," Smith says.

-- In Dummerston, teachers are developing teams of "professional learning communities which strengthen collaborative skills and learn effective strategies for tackling the most difficult school-related issues."

-- Several schools are working with integrating technology, Smith says. (As a parent, this was the easiest for me to understand, as I watch my own children become increasingly involved with computers for their school work -- and everything else, but that would be a discussion for another column.)

-- Various schools are also working on co-teaching, where "special educators provide instruction alongside regular educators, which allows for greater inclusion," Smith explains.

-- Some schools are also working on how to make issues of diversity, equity and social justice a part of regular practice.

-- At BUHS, the teachers’ in-service time allows them to complete their periodic accreditation review, which involves "intense examination of practice and gathering of evidence."

Reviewing this list reassured me that, as I thought, there is a lot going on for learning in the district-by teachers and by students.

I promised myself that I will remember all this the next in-service day, as I am surrounded by a pack of ravenous teenagers, all asking me "What’s for lunch?"

Perhaps I’ll throw out a bit of "in-service training" of my own: food preparation, nutritious choices, dishwasher loading, kitchen clean-up, trash take-out ....

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment and the Brattleboro Town School Board (elementary schools).