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Greenfield board debates preschool teacher schedule

GREENFIELD — A discussion about the future of Greenfield’s preschool got heated Wednesday after a School Committee member accused Superintendent Susan Hollins of forcing Academy of Early Learning teachers to change their work schedules.

The seven preschool teachers had been teaching students on Monday through Thursday, but changed the schedule this school year to now include a half-day on Friday.

Hollins told member Margaret Betts at a Wednesday subcommittee meeting that the change was necessary in order to align the teachers’ schedules with the one outlined in their contract — and that the school’s teachers plan to use the new schedule to improve the school.

Revising the schedule

All other Greenfield elementary teachers work with students Monday through Friday and have a 45-minute period each day to plan their curriculum.

For the past five years, however, the preschool teachers — Hollins said they are technically considered elementary teachers — have worked with students for four days each week and consolidated all of their planning time into a full day on Friday.

Hollins told the teachers last year that their work schedule needed to be fixed in one of two ways. They could create a plan for the preschool to become an “innovation school,” an alternative public school that would allow for a flexible work schedule and teaching plan, or they could work with the Greenfield Education Association to revise their contract.

The teachers chose the former and have been working with administration and at least one School Committee member on a plan to make the preschool an innovation school.

In anticipation that the School Committee would grant the school innovative status at an upcoming meeting, the teachers changed the school’s schedule for this year, adding a half-day for students on Fridays. The schedule would still give teachers a larger block of planning time.

It’s unclear, though, if such a vote will take place at the next meeting. Innovation and Curriculum Subcommittee Chairwoman Daryl Essensa supported the plan but the other two members present Wednesday suggested that the committee delay the issue one school year.

Betts questioned Hollins repeatedly on why there needed to be change at all, arguing that there was no issue if the teachers were working the same number of hours and were happy with the arrangement. Betts, who teaches first-grade for the Easthampton School District, said a similar situation exists there.

“It feels like ... we’ve literally spent hundreds of hours creating a new plan that never needed to happen,” she said. “I’m still trying to understand how it ever became a problem.”

Member Maryelen Calderwood said she was uncomfortable that the school’s schedule had been changed before any full committee discussion and vote took place. She also has said she has asked for, and has yet to receive, data about how effective innovation school initiatives have been at the department’s Discovery School at Four Corners.

Future changes to the school

The preschool taught about 110 children last year, including 35 special education students, and Hollins expects the numbers to remain constant this year. Individual children attend a few times each week, so at any given time there are never more than 15 students assigned to one teacher and two assistants.

There is a sliding scale for tuition based on household income, with some students attending for free, said Hollins. According to budget projections this year, the school costs $235,000 to operate but brings in $100,000 in tuition and is supported by nearly $125,000 in grants.

Regardless of whether the School Committee votes on this next month or next year, it is too late to change this year’s preschool schedule. The teachers will work directly with students for four-and-a-half days each week.

Elizabeth Bednarski-Mahon, one of two “teacher leaders” at the Academy of Early Learning, said that while teachers would prefer to teach for four days with one planning day, they are on board with the new schedule change. The only financial difference under this model is that one part-time special education paraprofessional will now work 19 hours instead of 16.

If the school became an innovative school, part of each week would be spent on community outreach initiatives — and Bednarski-Mahon and co-leader Nancy Garlock would receive a $1,000 salary increase to oversee the new program. Teachers, who would work one additional day each year, would also introduce new science-based teaching into the classroom.

Hollins pointed out that becoming an innovation school would allow the preschool to qualify for more grants to help cover the costs of the new programs.

The Greenfield Education Association supports the teachers’ proposal, said Paul DeMarco, a Massachusetts Teachers Association representative who works with the local union.

But union officials want to ensure they’re heavily involved in the planning next time around, as prescribed by the law, he told committee members Wednesday. DeMarco and Greenfield Education Association President Thomas Bevacqua sat in the audience throughout the meeting.

Conversations about the innovation school broke down last December when five teachers voted against the plan and Hollins rescinded her support.

But the proposal was revised and teachers unanimously supported it in its most recent vote, said Bednarski-Mahon.

The school department already has one innovation school, the Discovery School at Four Corners, which emphasizes community and environmental preservation. For three years, the department also hosted a “virtual innovation” school, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, but the cyber school now exists as an independent entity in town.

The school department’s Math and Science Academy is also vying for innovation status.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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