Our view: How will CMSD respond to likely demise of early-release programs?

June 19, 2012 11:46:09 AM



The Mississippi Department of Education has decided to put an end to the early-release programs that some of the state's school districts have employed. The State Board of Education made its ruling last week. Friday, they announced there would be a 25-day period in which residents can state their view on the matter. That doesn't necessarily mean the Board will reverse itself. Most likely the public-comment period will simply delay the inevitable. Starting in 2013, schools will not be allowed to send students home early more than twice during the school year. 


The decision comes only days after the Columbus Municipal School District Board approved a proposal by Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell for an early-release program each Wednesday. In the immediate wake of the MDE ruling, it is uncertain if the Board will proceed with its early-release plan. To implement a program that is likely to create such upheaval in the lives of students and parents seems needless if it is to be scrapped after a year. 


The CMSD Board voted on the proposal only after it returned from executive session, which was held near the end of its regular meeting. As a result, few residents were on hand to listen to the discussion before the Board voted, 3-1 with one abstention, to approve the early-release proposal. That the board would vote on a matter that had obvious meaningful consequences for parents with little public input called into question the Board's tactics. It also undermined the credibility of Liddell, for whom the proposal was her first major move since becoming superintendent. 


Obscured by the nature of the Board's handling of the issue was the merits of the early-release program itself. 


The idea, on its surface is laudable. By releasing students early, the teachers and staff would be given time to hone their skills and perhaps learn new techniques. With all the demands that teachers face, the knowledge that there would be three hours a week set aside for their own professional development is appealing. 


Under the plan the CMSD Board approved last week, students at the district's five elementary schools to be released at 12:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and for middle school and high school students to be released at 12:15 p.m. Teachers will stay until 3:30 p.m. Wednesdays for professional development. To make up for the lost instruction time, students' school day will be extended until 3 p.m. the remaining four days of the week.  


While you can see why teachers might like the idea, the new schedule might be a hardship on parents, especially parents of younger children. Having to arrange for what amounts to a half-day of childcare is not always easy. 


As it is with many things, there are costs and benefits associated with the program. The teachers -- and by extension, the children -- would get the benefits while the parents absorb the costs. 


But perhaps the most critical element revolves around how teachers would use those hours. 


Certainly, many teachers -- perhaps the majority -- would use that time productively. However, there seems to be nothing in place that would guarantee it. 


Consider Paula Vanderford, the state's accreditation director, among the skeptics. "What we've found across the state is many of the districts are not using those days appropriately," Vanderford told The Associated Press. 


Clearly, a proposal that creates this kind of hardship for parents should achieve more than simply allowing teachers to knock off early.  


It seems clear that if early-release programs are to be allowed, there should be some uniform training program implemented. A training curriculum should be developed for teachers to insure that teachers are making the best use of their time while providing accountability. 


Without accountability, there should be no early-release program. 


Based on its decision to end early-release programs, it's clear that the state found insufficient accountability to continue these programs. 


Now it will be interesting to see how the CMSD responds. It would seem to be a perfect occasion to distance itself from the issue, which was badly handled from the outset. But the district seems to be closing ranks and displaying an obstinacy that serves neither the best interests of the Board nor its teachers, students and parents. 


You may recall that the Board waited five days after reaching its decision to hire Liddell before announcing her hiring. Likewise, it has been more than a week since Liddell signed her contract, yet the contract -- by law, a matter of public record -- has yet to be released despite repeated requests from The Dispatch. 


Apparently, the Board's support of "early release'' is not applied to matters of transparency. 


Certainly, none of this inspires confidence as Liddell begins her tenure as superintendent.