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    Albany school district in the course of changing a “core bargain”

    Two dozen parents and teachers rallied at Albany Community Center ahead of a school board meeting last Tuesday, chanting slogans to urge the board not to change the current staggered reading schedule . Photo by Linda (Linjun) Fan.

    Few issues have roused more controversy in the Albany Unified School District than the staggered reading schedule, which is supported by many teachers and parents as a unique blessing to Albany schools, but challenged by a considerable number of others as an arbitrary burden.

    As the majority of the school board members are likely to vote for a change on the schedule next month, teachers and parents become increasingly passionate and divided in their opinions on the issue.

    Each class of Albany’s first, second and third graders are divided into two smaller groups for reading instructions, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The “early birds” start and finish school an hour earlier than the “late birds”. In the meantime, each of the kids spend an hour less in school than most 1-3 graders in California.

    The program has been in place in Albany for several decades. Teachers say that it allows them to give more attention to individual students and helps to improve the quality of their reading instructions. Many parents believe that the program benefits their children.

    However, a considerable number of other parents are concerned that the kids don’t get adequate instruction hours at school, and that the staggered schedule brings them extra burden in childcare.

    The school district has held a number of meetings and conducted a survey on the issue in the past year. The Board of Education agreed in June to keep the small-group reading program, but directed administrators to look for ways to increase school hours for 1-3 graders. As a temporary measure to address parents’ concerns, the board voted to extend school time for 20 minutes during the new school year.

    The controversy does not seem to be dissolving. At a recent board meeting, a task force composed of administrators and teachers reported to the board that the district should keep the current schedule, instead of looking for alternatives. All teachers at the three elementary schools signed petition letters to support the task force’s recommendation. And a number of teachers and parents spoke passionately at recent meetings to urge the board to adopt it.

    But boardmembers said that the report was not what they had asked for.

    “We have went through a lot of difficult discussions to give a very clear direction as to what we wanted the task force to come up with,” said Boardmember David Glasser. “It’s a fully-day instruction with small-group reading. “

    “I was surprised, ” said Boardmember Ron Rosenbaum. ” The task force did not completely respond to the board’s direction. “

    Lynda Hornada, Chair of the task force and Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the district, gave a second report to the board last Tuesday, introducing four scenarios that keep the reading program while increasing instruction time.

    The first one is desired by many. Under this scenario, the current small-group reading classes are retained, the school day gets extended for an hour, and the kids come and leave school at the same time. However, it is estimated that the district needs to pay $375,000 each year to hire additional teachers to implement it.

    Superintendent Marla Stephenson asked the board not to consider this option because the district is facing serious budget challenges.

    “I would caution the board that it would be ill-advised to take on anything that “eats” at this point, anything that would increase our budget in an ongoing way, ” Stephenson said.

    She advised against the second scenario, which would also bring additional costs, for the same reason.

    Three of the five boardmembers, Glasser, Rosenbaum, and Calloway has expressed their preference for the third scenario, under which the school day gets extended for 20 minutes, small-group reading program is continued, and no extra cost is caused.

    Boardmember Miriam Walden said she did not like any of the four scenarios, for she believed that the current school schedule should be cherished and preserved.

    “To me, it’s a core Albany bargain. And I haven’t seen anything that makes us to walk away from it, ” she said. “… You would only change it very cautiously, once the bargain has been made. “

    The board will vote on the issue at a meeting in January. At that time Board President Charlie Blanchard will be succeeded by newly-elected Pat Low. Low declined to comment, saying that she would make her opinions known to the public at the January meeting.

    Article by Linda (Linjun) Fan, contributed by Bori Ha at Albany High School.

    Click here to read an earlier story on the topic. And click here to watch the recent two board meetings at which the issue was heatedly debated.

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