A year-round calendar for all schools, more art and music, and staggered shifts for teachers are among the suggestions from nearly 600 CPS teachers that are outlined in a new report on how the district should use the longer school day it plans to implement next fall.

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard met privately with the teachers who wrote the report on Monday afternoon and says the Longer School Day Advisory Committee will take the recommendations into account. “Having the direct input of teachers in shaping how we lengthen the school day is critical,” Brizard said in a statement. (Media were not allowed into the meeting.)

The suggestions are outlined in a new report from the VIVA Project of Chicago and National-Louis University. They include recommendations for 45 minutes of common planning time a day for teachers; 90 minutes a week of library instruction; 90 minutes a week of art and music (up from an average of 60 minutes a week now); and 180 minutes of physical education (more than twice as much as students currently receive).

The report also suggests that teachers could be scheduled in staggered shifts to keep their work day the same length it is now.

The VIVA (Voice, Ideas, Vision, Action) Project is organized by New Voice Strategies, a group that has previously done similar reports for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and for New York State Schools Chancellor John King.

A handful of the recommendations seem to be aimed at cost-savings. For instance: recruiting parent volunteers to cover recess, asking classroom teachers to offer physical education, and bringing in community organizations to run clubs for the first part of the school day.

In high schools, the report recommendations, club meetings could become the first class of the day rather than an after-school activity, giving students an incentive to get to school on time and eliminating lost instructional time when students get to school late.

Still unclear: How CPS would afford to implement many of the ideas, given the massive budget deficit looming next year. For instance, the recommendations call for each elementary school to have a full-time art and music teacher; currently, many schools only have a half-time teacher to offer either art or music.

They also say schools should offer extra technology and other elective classes in high schools, which would require more staff. So would scheduling teachers in shifts.

You have to start with the more important consideration, which is students and teachers, and then work back,” says Elizabeth Evans, founding CEO of New Voice Strategies. “Administrators have to make decisions about priorities, and then money to go with [them].”

Facilities will be another issue. The report recommends recess at all schools, and urges administrators to search out community funding now in an effort to have playgrounds built by August 2012 – a quick timeline that is likely not feasible for many. Extra enrichment and gym classes will likely require more space.

Town halls for teachers

Time allotments proposed in the report would slightly increase the amount of time spent on reading, nearly double the time spent on math, and dramatically increase time for science and social studies in the primary grades.

“Schools of highest socioeconomic status integrate non-tested areas into almost every subject of instruction, while those courses are all but missing from schools of highest need,” the report states.

The report particularly focuses on the importance of health in high schools, calling for more elective classes on wellness, before-school health clubs, and involvement from community organizations to work with students during the school day.

It also recommends placing all schools on a year-round calendar, using a block scheduling approach – with 90-minute-long classes – and giving individual schools the autonomy for structuring their extended-day schedules.

Quarterly breaks in the year-round calendar should be moved to the end of school grading periods, rather than occurring in the middle of grading periods, as they currently do at Track E schools. During the breaks, the report suggests, CPS should offer enrichment and gifted programs, as well as extra help for students, the report suggests.

Teachers should spend training days each quarter reviewing student data together, and the report urges the district to offer additional training on the IMPACT attendance system – or else move to a “cheaper, more efficient system.”

The district also comes in for criticism in some of the recommendations. “Commit to a program that lets students know by the end of 8th grade where they will attend high school in the fall,” the report urges. “Ensure every classroom has a teacher assigned, ready to teach, on the first day of school.”

It also asks officials to “stop interrupting instruction for visiting dignitaries or guests” and review the amount of time spent on testing.

New Voice Strategies set up an online site for teachers to share their ideas, then recruited 11 of the top contributors to turn the comments into a report. The project was done in collaboration with National-Louis University professors and incorporates information from the National Center on Time & Learning. 

New Voice Strategies has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but that didn’t stop a broad cross-section of Chicago teachers from participating – including former Chicago Teachers Union political activities coordinator Xian Barrett.

Next, the group will hold a series of town hall meetings for teachers about the report. Preliminary plans are to co-host the meetings with National-Louis University, teacher advocacy group TeachPlus, and possibly the Chicago Teachers Union’s Quest Center.

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