Seattle teachers would work in their classrooms four days a week and take the fifth day for planning, training and parent conferences under a bold new proposal by Superintendent John Stanford.
On the fifth day, students would be taught by teams of specialists - librarians and music, physical education and computer teachers - who would line up field trips and guest speakers or teach art, dance, sports or other "hands-on" activities.
"If we're going to do anything to change the culture of public education . . ., we must train teachers and we must do it massively, not in little dribbles," Stanford said.
Stanford's idea is to focus everything that takes time away from basic academic instruction - planning, parent conferences, field trips, even doctors' appointments and student suspensions - on one day of the week and make sure the other four days are "chock-full of academics." Students would spend the same amount of time in school.
Teachers already are out of their classrooms more than 20 days in a 180-day school year. That includes sick days, training days and closure for five to seven days for conferences and in-service time, Stanford noted.
Under his plan, teachers would trade in those in-service and training days sprinkled through the year and get one day a week to plan, talk, think and learn.
Parents would get schools that didn't close for in-service days, teachers who were more excited about their work, and children who were better educated, he said.
Traveling teams of specialists
Stanford envisions a system in which schools would be grouped by location into clusters of five. A team of specialists would travel to a different school each day, freeing classroom teachers to attend a teacher-training institute that Stanford wants to create.
A traveling principal would be assigned to each specialty team so the regular principal could do planning or accompany the regular teachers to training.
On the specialists' day, the teams would focus on activities tied in to what classroom teachers were doing the other four days. For example, if students were learning about reptiles, specialists could take them to the zoo for an up-close look.
A team of administrators will start putting the details together later this summer or fall. Stanford hopes to have the new school week in place by September 1998.
Stanford acknowledges that his idea is still raw - he came up with it after talking to a teacher in May - and many questions are yet to be resolved:
What would it cost? When would specialists have time to plan, as a team and with the teachers whose classes they would cover? Where would the training institute be? How do you make sure there's time to teach a subject such as music that students may need five days a week? And how do you keep that fifth day from being viewed as a "fluff" day?
"It's a tricky day that can be very, very powerful done well," Stanford said.
Reaction has been mixed
Reaction so far is mixed among the people who have heard Stanford talk about his new plan.
"It's got possibilities," said Principal Pat Sander of Gatzert Elementary. She said she was intrigued when Stanford brought up the idea at a meeting, but also wondered how to ensure that the fifth day enhances the other four. She also worries about burning out the specialists.
Christi Clark, Montlake Elementary principal, is less enthusiastic. Her school week gives teachers 40 minutes of team planning time a day, and specialists are part of it. "I don't know if I want to give up having them on my team," she said. She also worries about concentrating nonclassroom activities on one day. "To me, five days of education are important, not just four days."
Officials at the teachers union, the Seattle Education Association, did not return phone calls, but Stanford said SEA Executive Director Roger Erskine supports the idea.
Linda Harris, School Board president, likes the idea for what it would do for teachers, who are being asked to do more under district and state reforms despite having little time to plan how to do so.
Under their union contract, teachers now get 2 1/2 hours of planning time per week, usually broken into half-hour chunks each day. With interruptions, though, Stanford said the average teacher has just 17 minutes of free time per day.
He thinks even a half-day is not enough and will push for one full day a week. That would give teachers time to visit other schools, learn new techniques, meet in teams for group planning, learn about technology, and meet with parents.
Stanford also sees it as "a big morale boost for teachers," who would see that district leadership understands the difficulties they face. "If I can do this . . . they will reach these children," he said.
Some parents are skeptical. Lisa Bond, who just finished a term as president of the Seattle Council PTSA, said one day a week of planning seems excessive.
She has heard of teachers who use planning time for cleaning their classrooms or coming to work late. Stanford's plan has no "quality control," she said.
Fears of `a lost day'
Bond predicted students would act up with specialists just as they do with substitutes. "Basically, it will be a lost day," she said.
Stanford brought up his plan at a PTSA meeting, Bond said, after a parent asked about participating in her school's decision on which specialists to hire. Stanford went to a blackboard and spent 20 minutes diagramming and talking about his plan. "Our jaws dropped," she said, "and we were all just going, `Huh?' "
The plan would be costly. There wouldn't be enough specialists to cover a whole school, and new people would have to be hired, as would new principals to supervise them.
But Stanford thinks the system could produce some savings, too. By reducing their stress, fewer teachers would choose to take the 12 sick days built into their union contracts, he said. That means less absenteeism and less money spent on substitutes.
Stanford wants to create an incentive for teachers not to take their sick days. He would add up the days teachers didn't take and let them retire early while still drawing a paycheck for up to a year.
Stanford said he hopes to use money saved on substitutes, money already set aside for training, and possible savings from reduced use of sick leave to pay for his plan.
Stanford said community input will help shape the details, but that it's time for a new approach.
"We've been using our time and our money in the same way for a long time," he said. "We're going to change that, and in changing that, we're going to get massive improvement."