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More time in class approved for Ledyard elementary school students

Starting this upcoming school year, students in Ledyard's two elementary schools will be spending an extra half-hour in class each weekday.

The school day will be extended by 15 minutes at the beginning and end of the day, meaning students will be in class from 8:25 a.m. to 3:25 p.m. The town's school board approved the move Tuesday night, after some parents and school employees questioned it.

Superintendent Jason Hartling proposed the additional time as part of the school district's Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the additional class time will be paid for with $410,000 the town received in American Rescue Plan funds through the federal and state governments.

The vote to approve the extended day came during a school board special meeting, called after some public criticism that the idea was presented with little transparency and that the superintendent was overstepping his authority.

Board Chairman Anthony Favry disagreed. "In the beginning of the pandemic, the Board of Education gave the superintendent executive authority to act on the board's behalf to address the school district's needs on behalf of the students," he said. "The board did have line of sight in this."

During the meeting, Hartling outlined the timeline that went into his decision to extend the school day. He said he first brought up the idea in January and February of possibly extending the school day by at least an hour for the existing term, as students were transitioning to in-person learning. He said he talked with teacher union representatives, and mentioned the recommendation at the March 24 school board meeting. Funding estimates also were being examined.

Hartling said by mid-April, though, it became apparent extending classroom time for the current school year wasn't feasible, and attention then turned to the 2021-22 academic year. He said he had numerous informal conversations with teachers, and brought up the issue again at the May 4 school board meeting. A May 27 email message was sent to all district teachers, followed by a June 1 open forum with them, and more individual meetings.

Emails were sent to parents and school staff on June 26, outlining the plan to extend class time, and to set up two online forum sessions in early July to seek feedback on the issue. Hartling said he received input from only two people.

"I am always working to try to facilitate people to come forward and talk," Hartling said. "I know the board has received some emails. I wasn't privy to them. I need to hear (the criticism). I want to learn from those conversations, and put those perspectives in play."

Board member Joanne Kelley voted for the longer day but said Hartling should have been more forthcoming with information about it. She said she remembered the topic being discussed at the March 24 meeting, but then no more extensive discussion until the July 14 meeting. "I think the parents, teachers, and the public thought the idea was being presented as a fait accompli," she said, "when they felt there could've been more time and more discussion. I appreciate the presentation, though. ... It's a good plan."

Because it was a special board meeting, no public comment was allowed. An email sent to The Day after the meeting from Bonnie Harris indicated some objections to the extended day plan, including the use of two computer software adaptive learning programs: Lexia Core5 and Dreambox. Harris in her email claimed the websites are not individualized instruction, are confusing to students and only monitor how long each student is on the website, regardless of how much work is done. She also claimed the school system is using part-time tutors to teach the 40% of the district's students that aren't meeting academic standards.

In a Wednesday phone interview, Hartling noted that the district has increased the number of full-time intervention instructors to help students, and is in the process of rebuilding the literacy and math programs. "It takes time," he said.

As for the online adaptive programs, Hartling said teachers receive reports on specific skills students are working on and provide motivation and monitoring that the students are actually doing the work.

Hartling said the extended time will be incorporated into the existing school day activities, with no special tasks set aside for the additional 15-minute time periods. One change is that so-called "special programs," such as art, music, physical education and library, will be offered each day instead of four days a week. Activities will be rotated each day.

Hartling said he continues to monitor teacher feedback on the extended day schedule, which he said shows it wasn't a done deal ahead of time. He admitted teachers haven't shown an overwhelming urge to extend the school day, but have been working hard to make it work.

The school board voted 7 to 1 to approve the longer school day. Board member Brandon Graber cast the lone no vote. Fellow member Michael Brawner was absent.

The first day of school is Sept. 2.

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