Parents and teachers lined up to speak on the staggered reading program of Albany Unified School District at a meeting last Tuesday. Photo by Linda (Linjun) Fan.
Dozens of parents and teachers spoken passionately on the staggered reading program of Albany Unified School District at a recent board meeting. About half of them sharply challenged the program while the other half stoutly supported it.
Under the program, each class of Albany’s first, second and third graders is divided into two smaller groups and receive reading instructions separately. One group, the “early birds”, start school at 8:30 a.m. and finish at 1:35 p.m., while the other group, the “late birds” start and finish school an hour later.
The program was adopted by the Albany school district in the 1970s as a tool to reduce class sizes. A majority of parents used to support the program, because they thought that small group instruction benefited their kids.
But they are split over it now. While most of them still agree that small group instruction is valuable, many are concerned that the program has shortened school hours and added childcare burden.
“It is not clear to me that cutting short school hours is an appropriate price to pay (for small group instruction), ” said Zeph Landau, a parent of a first grader at Marin Elementary School.
Another parent Jon Meyers started to challenge the program when he had a difficult time getting morning childcare for his first grader who was assigned by his teacher to a late bird class.
Less than a half of the parents who need morning childcare could get a slot from district-runned programs. Only 30 slots are available for 121 enrolled 1-3 graders at Marin; only 15 are available for 126 students at Cornell Elementary.
“I believe childcare is a critical issue, ” Meyers said.
Many other parents still support the program.
“It has helped my son become a stronger reader, ” said Alesia Alonso, parent of a second grader at Marin. “I think it’s important for kids to have more uninstructed time of the day.”
A majority of teachers believe that the program helps them improve education quality.
“It would be a sad day for Albany if people sacrifice the quality of education for childcare needs, ” said Diane Meltzer, a teacher for second graders at Marin.
Tracy Signor, a teacher for second graders at Ocean View Elementary, said the staggered reading program enables her to meet specific needs of her students.
The Albany school district has been looking for ways to address the controversy since last fall. It has held a number of meetings and conducted a survey in April offering several options for parents and teachers to rank and comment.
More than 500 among 1,300 parents of Albany elementary school students participated in the survey — about half of the surveyed parents wanted to discard the program and extend current school hours for either an hour or eighty minutes; a fourth of them preferred to keep the current program; and 37.5 per cent wanted to keep staggered reading classes but extend school time for 20 minutes.
Among the nearly 60 teachers who took the survey, 60 per cent of them preferred to continue the program, a third would like to keep small group instruction but add 20 minutes in school time, and less than twenty percent wanted to abandon the program completely.
“The community is divided over the issue. We need to find a way to bring people together, ” said Marla Stephenson, Assistant Superintendent of the school district.
She said that it was possible for the district to both keep small group instruction and lengthen school hours.
“It takes a lot of thoughtful planning, ” Stephenson said. “We can try.”
Terry Georgeson, principal of Ocean View Elementary and parent of a third grader, said that she shared parents’ concerns over school hours and childcare, but she was also worried that a dramatic change to the program would stretch the school’s resources and bring in unexpected problems.
She said that it would be a good compromise to keep the staggered reading classes and add 20 minutes to the school day.
“It offers us more of what we need but brings less risks, ” Georgeson said.
Stephenson has recommended to the Board of Education that principals ask teachers if they wish to extent the school day for first to third grades by 20 minutes in the upcoming academic year.
The Board listened to parents and teachers’ opinions at its regular meeting last week, and will discuss the issue at a special meeting Wednesday, June 4. (click here for the agenda)
Board President Charles Blanchard said he would ask administrators more detailed questions at that time.
“If we were to make change, I would need to know how it fits in with the other teaching programs of the school day, ” Blanchard said.