For the teachers at Taneytown Elementary School, a few extra hours of planning time every quarter to get together, compare notes and swap stories and strategies have transformed their jobs.
"I was always scrambling, and I felt very much alone," first-grade instructor Jenny Baker said of her rookie teaching year three years ago. She regularly worked from 6:30 a.m. until after 5 p.m., took work home and spent every free minute at school planning lessons by herself. "It wasn't until we were blessed with [Principal] Phyllis [Sonnenleiter] and money to do this that I really knew what I was doing and knew what my focus was."
The Carroll Board of Education is considering adding time for that kind of collaborative planning at elementary schools across the county. Only schools that receive funding for disadvantaged pupils or extra money from their PTAs have money specifically tagged to allow teachers to plan together.
At yesterday's work session on the calendar proposed for the 2001-2002 school year, the board also expressed interest in adding 10 minutes to the school day at all elementary, middle and high schools. The proposal will return to the board in November for discussion and will be voted on in December after 60 days of public comment.
Setting the school calendar has become an annual controversy in Carroll.
In February 1999, the school board changed the school calendar to hold classes on Martin Luther King Day, becoming the only school system in Maryland not to observe the slain civil rights leader's birthday. Widespread criticism caused the board to reverse its decision, and the General Assembly later made King's birthday a mandatory, rather than an optional, school holiday.
In November, a crowd of parents asked that the county close schools or excuse students during the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Their request was denied.
A few years ago, when school officials included late-start days in the calendar to give teachers morning time for planning and staff development, parents griped that it interfered with their day care arrangements. In later years, the board scheduled the planning time for the afternoon, including early dismissals for elementary school teachers in the calendar.
Adding extra planning time to the calendar has not been an issue for middle and high school teachers.
Those teachers have about 90 minutes a day built into their schedules for individual and group planning time during free periods.
Elementary pupils, however, are typically with one teacher for most of the day.
Taneytown Elementary's teachers and principal and the county's elementary directors were careful yesterday to emphasize the difference between individual planning time that elementary teachers have - the 30 minutes to 90 minutes a day that instructors use to grade papers, get their classrooms in order and plan lessons - and the group planning time that teachers are seeking.
"In classrooms, teachers are very isolated. I've heard it described as isolated cells brought together by a common parking lot," said Bo Ann Bohman, a director of elementary schools for curriculum, instruction and staff development for Carroll schools. Group time gives teachers a chance to troubleshoot problems together, score student assignments more objectively together and share tips and strategies across grade levels and classes.
Bohman turned to three Taneytown Elementary educators for proof.
Debbie Cherneski, a resource teacher who works with disadvantaged pupils in kindergarten and first, second and third grades, toldthe board how she had always considered herself a well-read teacher.
"Now I am finding out in a lot of these learning groups that, boy, there is a lot more out there that I wish I had known and wish I'd known a long time ago," said Cherneski, who commonly refers to her pupils as "my babies" and gets teary-eyed talking about the impact group planning has had on her career.
"Now, they're walking around believing that they are readers and writers and that they can do anything. There is a new energy in our school. The only problem is that we need more of it. I'm there sometimes until 8 or 9 o'clock and the janitor is walking me out to my car when he's locking up."
Sonnenleiter, who was named principal of Taneytown Elementary in June after a year as assistant principal and then acting principal, reiterated that need.
"There is no way I can stand before you and swear on a Bible that every child will learn and achieve without this" planning time, she told the board. "Because I can't. We need this. And we need money for this."