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New SHS Schedule Could Be Harmful To Student Wellness: A Letter From the Compact Committee

shscupolacopyThe Scarsdale High School Compact Committee, a well-respected group of administrators, teachers, and parents, wrote a letter on June 7th to the Board of Education regarding the 75 minutes added to the High School school week -- 2 minutes added to each period -- starting this September. The Committee fears that the additional time will cause more stress to students' already anxiety-filled lives and hurt student engagement, which in turn will stifle learning. They propose that the additional 75 minutes be used in way that focuses on the students and their collaborative work with teachers. The letter was discused at the July 6th Board meeting. 

Dear Ms. Maude and Mr. Wixted:

The Scarsdale High School Compact Committee is concerned about the recent agreement that mandates an additional 75 minutes to our students' already busy week. We are also concerned that instructional time is being defined in a way that runs counter to our high school wellness initiative, which has been researching and presenting information about different uses of time to personalize instruction and increase engagement. We hereby request that the Board reconsider its stance and allow us the flexibility to address the unique and individual needs at our high school. We request this flexibility so that we can pursue a schedule that works along with our wellness initiative: A schedule that allows for a student-centered definition of instructional time, a schedule that addresses the health and safety of students at the high school, and a schedule that increases engagement in traditional and alternative learning environments.

First, it is important to state that our wellness initiative predates the recent agreement and that our school was already deeply invested in the research and trends of best practices centered on reducing stress and increasing engagement in high-achieving schools. In fact, we had already planned several pilots towards the end of the 2015-16 school year and we were looking forward to using the new Learning Commons for more individualized and interdisciplinary learning. Second, it is important to note that our direction and our goals are based on solid research, best practices, and the recommendations of distinguished professionals in the educational community who have advised us that our students are exhibiting stress-related problems, including anxiety and depression, at rates higher than the national average. Finally, the agreement severely hinders our ability to address these issues and may in fact exacerbate them by adding more time to our students' already busy work-week.

As stated in our Blueprint for Student Wellness: "According to the Challenge Success Survey, when compared to similar peer schools, our students were experiencing extremely high levels of stress and academic worry (higher than all peer schools), had a higher workload and much less sleep and free time than comparable schools, showed less engagement in school, and reported health related problems such as headaches, shortness of breath, exhaustion, etc." Our work with Challenge Success and Dr. Slavin convinced us that the most important solution to our situation is to give back time to students in the form of reduced workload and testing as well as in the form of a changed schedule. In other words, to reduce student stress we need to restructure time (in the form of homework, studying, extra-curriculars, and school time), not add time to the students' day. The current schedule runs counter to this idea and to these suggestions.

During our consultation about the survey results, Denise Pope, author of Doing School , and co-founder of Challenge Success, made us aware that our students show far less engagement than is exhibited by students at similar peer schools. She suggested that our priority should be to tackle this lack of engagement by addressing the issue of time in two ways: by opening up the schedule or changing the way we use time and by reducing homework and testing. (As noted above, based on the advice from the survey, we had already begun to rethink our homework and testing policies and strategies and were well underway to piloting schedule changes until the mandate occurred.) We fear that increasing the time in each class by 2 minutes will not increase engagement and may actually decrease engagement, and we fear that without increased engagement, learning will not occur; instead, we will have kids "doing school." Furthermore, when we spoke to Denise Pope again at the Challenge Success conference in the Fall, she offered to speak to the Board and/or superintendent about the negative effects the proposed schedule change would have on our students (based on the survey data), and she offered several alternative uses of time designed to reduce stress and increase engagement.

The consensus of educational research tells us that when we build time in our school day for students to meet with teachers and other students and for teachers to plan with other teachers, we increase the quality of instruction, learning, and engagement. We also decrease the amount of work and stress that is pushed to after-school work. As Vicki Abeles says, "The inefficient use of the school day is also part of what pushes school obligations, such as assignments and tutoring, past the last bell" (56). We ask, therefore, for the freedom to continue this good and important work without restriction, as we feel our ultimate goal of increasing learning and engagement is in line with the spirit of the recent Board decision that we are concerned about. We also believe that a more efficient and student-centered use of time will reduce the stress students experience both during the school day and after school.

As you know, the Compact Committee is representative of all constituent groups at the high school and those groups are deeply invested in our ongoing wellness initiative. According to the Compact for Learning: District Plan, approved 1/25/2016, individual schools can request that a Bargaining Unit and the Board of Education consider the needs of an individual school with regard to contracts. While we are not asking to modify the addition of 75 minutes, we are asking for consideration in how we structure and define those 75 minutes for our high school based on the needs of our students made evident to us through the Challenge Success survey and our wellness initiatives. We feel we have an obligation to remind you of these needs: increasing engagement, reducing stress, and creating opportunities for student agency and personalized learning.

We strongly believe that, given the flexibility we are asking for, we can create an innovative and forward thinking schedule that meets the needs of students and schools in the 21st century and that can increase engagement and reduce stress, two things that the mandated schedule does not address. We prefer to use the additional time in a way that is more student-centered, by offering students and teachers time in the day for collaborative work. We believe that a more flexible definition of instructional time will create better opportunities for our students than adding two minutes to each class. We have explored and will continue to investigate the benefits and possibilities of advisory periods, enrichment periods, flex-time, seminar time, and passion periods, but these things cannot flourish unless we are given the opportunity to restructure the way the additional time is being used.

Sincerely,

The Scarsdale High School Compact Committee

Lauren Barton - Teacher

Kenneth Bonamo - Principal

Amanda Filley - Teacher

Oren Iosepovici - Dean

Ottilie Jarmel - Parent

Caroline Kelson - Student

Jessica Levenberg - Teacher

Karen Lucente - Support Staff

Andrea O'Gorman - Assistant Principal

George Olivier - Teacher

Jeannine Palermo - Parent

Amy Song - PTA President

Carol Wolfe -Parent

Julie Zhu - Parent

Supporting Research
Abeles, Vicki. "Opinion | Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?" The New York Times , The New York Times, 2 Jan. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/opinion/sunday/is-the-drive-for-success-making-our-children-sick. html?_r=0 . Accessed 11 May 2017

Abeles, Vicki, et al. Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation . New York, NY, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016.

Donatelle, Rebecca J. Health: the Basics. Boston, Pearson, 2015.

Hofferth, S.L,, & Sandberg, J.F. (2001). "Changes in American Children's Use of Time" in
Children at the Millennium. New York: Elsevier Science

Iosepovici, Oren, and George Olivier. "Student Wellness Overview and Recommendations."
Google Docs . Google, May-June 2016. Web. 22 May 2017.

National Education Commission on Time and Learning. (2005). Prisoners of Time. Washington, DC., Education Commission of the States. www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/64/52/6452.pdf

Pope, Denise Clark, et al. Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids . San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass, 2015.

Pope, Denise Clark. Doing School: How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed-out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2002

Sizer, Theodore R. Horace's Compromise: the Dilemma of the American High School: with a New Preface . Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co, 2004.

"Strategies for Healthy, Engaged Kids and Stronger Schools." Challenge Success , Stanford Graduate School of Education, www.challengesuccess.org/. Accessed 11 May 2017.

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