Principal pushes for year-round school
• School leaders examine how to shrink student "achievement gap."
The discussion was lively and at times electric in the district office of the Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City Thursday, March 21, when the board met in a study session to consider the dimensions of the academic achievement gap and what might be done to reduce it.
"Our success (with the underperforming kids) depends on how bold and innovative we are willing to get," Woodside High School Principal David Reilly told the group. "These kids need to be in school year-round. By moving to a trimester, they don't get caught in the undertow. ... Until we change the calendar, we're going to have a modicum of success."
Lower-income students tend to lose momentum during the summer while affluent students tend to gain it, Linda Darling Hammond, a widely respected professor of education at Stanford University, said in her remarks that opened the discussion.
Year-round school also benefits teachers in great need of time together for professional development, Mr. Reilly said. Four nine-week periods of intense classroom work would be punctuated by four three-week open periods, when students can catch up or take electives and teachers can get better at what they do.
U.S. teachers typically receive less intense professional development than they need, Ms. Darling Hammond said. Seminars of 14 hours or less don't affect the achievement gap. What's needed, she said, are 50 to 100 hours of study, practice and reflection on a particular topic or area of work. "Those kinds of professional development programs are very rare in our country," she said.
"In the United States," she added, "teachers are the most unequally distributed resources." Equal access to good teachers translates to "huge" reductions in the achievement gap, she said.
And students in severe academic trouble need to be made aware, to be told that they're not cutting it, said Jenna Carson, a Menlo-Atherton High School math teacher and the director of Compass, a program to help incoming ninth-graders adjust to high school realities.
The focus on remedial classes without electives for these kids is "sucking the life out of them," Ms. Carson said. Electives could change their lives, but everyone needs to wake up to how to help them succeed. "Tell them it's going to be a five-year plan. Be bold," she said.
Ms. Carson added that at the end of the freshman year, she could "almost tell you who are going to be the dropouts."
Great ideas, board members said, but one key is finding the money to pay for them. The changes need to be cost-neutral, the members said.
Another key for the year-round school that Mr. Reilly proposed: negotiating with the district's teachers union. In no way unaware of the contentiousness among parents and teachers of what he was proposing, Mr. Reilly said in an interview that Woodside may need a waiver that allows a calendar other than that used by the district.
"I'll be the first one over the hill with a grenade in my mouth," he added in explaining his willingness to take on the controversial proposal. "I will always err on the side of what's best for the kids."