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Teachers seek more time for planning; Removal of sessions for lesson preparation sparks school dispute

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Carroll County elementary school teachers say they're running out of time. Time to prepare for classes, time for parent conferences, time for themselves.

Planning time is the education topic of the moment in Carroll, and the fight for it has brought teachers together like no other issue here in recent history. Emotions and rhetoric are running high, and teachers say morale and motivation have hit all-time lows.

"I have never seen an issue pull people together as much as this one has. I think it is the last straw," said Marilyn Urban, a teacher at Mechanicsville Elementary School in Sykesville for 18 years.

For the past two years, the school calendar has given Carroll's elementary teachers extra time to plan their lessons by starting school late eight days during the year. The county board of education decided two months ago to remove the planning time from next year's proposed school calendar because it cut into instructional time for pupils.

"Elementary people tend not to take a stand but we need this time desperately. I think people are willing to take a stand on this," Urban said.

The controversy over planning time is not confined to Carroll teachers. It's a sore subject with teachers across Maryland. In the Baltimore area, elementary teacher contracts provide 200 to 250 minutes of planning time a week, typically when pupils are in "special area" classes such as art, music and gym. Teachers say that isn't enough.

"I don't think a teacher's time is valued when it's not in front of children, and I think that's a terrible mistake," said Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "High-quality instruction is dependent on quality preparation."

Educators say that has become particularly true as elementary teachers are called on to do more. The shift toward individualized instruction, mainstreaming of special education pupils and preparing pupils for state academic performance tests contribute to bigger workloads for teachers.

"If you go back 30 years, elementary teachers had teacher manuals, kids had workbooks, and lessons were spelled out," said Dorothy Mangle, assistant superintendent of instruction with Carroll schools. Now, Mangle said, teachers are expected to use various teaching strategies and instructional materials to meet children's individual needs.

"It's clearly better for the child, but it's not done without great care and preparation -- and the public's demanding it," said Karen B. Dunlop, president of the Howard County Education Association.

In Carroll, the planning-time issue has led to strained relations between teachers and the board of education.

Not baby sitters

The way teachers see it, the board's decision to eliminate some of their planning time shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the elementary teacher's responsibilities.

The board removed the planning time from next year's proposed school calendar after some parents complained that the late-start days disrupted their day-care arrangements.

The teachers responded that they aren't baby sitters.

Teachers say planning time is critical in Carroll, where the ratio of 62.5 teaching staff per 1,000 pupils is the second highest in Maryland.

Mechanicsville Elementary teacher Karen Watkins said she knows of many young teachers with families who plan to get out of teaching because of the demands on their time.

"I'm putting off marriage and children until my early 30s, and then I'm not coming back," Watkins said.

Board members say they made their decision because the school days set aside for late starts left pupils with less classroom time.

"It's frustrating to me that teachers think the board would have done this for the convenience of parents," said board member Susan Krebs.

In response to teachers' concerns, Carroll school system staff released another proposed calendar Monday that addresses the lost planning-time issue. It includes four days when schools would dismiss pupils early to give elementary teachers 11 hours of planning time.

The board expects to vote on the calendar today.

County teachers say the two-hour blocks of planning time created by the late school days are valuable because they allow teachers to meet with colleagues across grades and subjects. Teachers say such in-depth discussions are not possible during the daily planning periods of a half-hour to an hour.

"I knew when I got into this profession I would be putting in many hours beyond the school day," said Urban, whose contract requires her to work from 8 a.m. to 3: 30 p.m. "But we're doing more now than we've ever had to do before."

Typical school day

At 7 a.m. on a typical school day last week, Urban was in her classroom at Mechanicsville preparing lessons for her math and social studies classes. She darted around the room, sipping coffee and reading notes reminding her of the morning's tasks.

Urban has 26 children in her class, including one with Down syndrome who requires separate assignments, one in a wheelchair, and several with attention deficit disorder who need extra attention.

She dashed down the hall to make copies of the day's math assignment and a transparency for social studies. As the sun came up, Urban graded the three-dimensional maps she couldn't take home the previous night, then headed for a parent conference at 8 a.m.

By 8: 25 a.m., Urban was back in her room, greeting pupils, taking lunch counts and checking homework. She taught social studies and math from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., then escorted her class to gym and music. Urban used her hour of planning time to prepare the afternoon reading lesson, three separate assignments for three groups in her class divided by ability.

Before her half-hour lunch break at 1 p.m., Urban taught handwriting and took her pupils to recess. In the day's last class, she juggled three reading groups, working with each for part of the class while the other two finished their assignments.

Urban had another parent conference at 3: 30 p.m. and headed home shortly after 4 p.m., her bags bulging with papers to be graded that night.

Substantive changes needed

Superintendent William H. Hyde's proposed operating budget attempts to restore some of the teachers' lost planning time by including $272,000 to hire part-time employees to relieve classroom teachers. The money would provide 15 minutes of extra planning time a week.

Carroll school board members say they are aware of the demands on teachers but that the problems can't be solved by restoring the late-start days to the school calendar.

They say more substantive changes are needed, which means spending more money. Some suggestions from board members and teachers include curriculum review, adding extra days earmarked for planning to the school calendar, and hiring more teachers to reduce class size and more assistants to help teachers with paperwork and other time-consuming tasks.

It sounds good to Urban.

"I like what I'm doing," she said. "But I need more time to do it right."

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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