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Why School Schedules Require an Advanced Degree

September 16, 2005|Beth Shuster | Times Staff Writer

Classes at Pacoima Middle School begin at 7:56 and end at 3:04. Except on some Tuesdays when classes let out at 1:34. Marshall High in Los Feliz ends at 3:14. Patrick Henry Middle in Granada Hills starts at 7:57.

It's enough to make a parent's head spin, especially for those who must drop children off at different schools with different schedules. And let's not even talk about the parents who then must get to work. On time.

But there's a reason that Los Angeles schools don't neatly start at 8 and end at 3. However, the explanation is complicated -- and that's even before learning the lingo.

The campus calendars sent home to the parents of the Los Angeles Unified School District's 742,000 students can be nearly incomprehensible. So parents shouldn't feel bad if they don't understand the terms used.

Question: So why don't all schools start and end at the same time?

Answer: Administrators and teachers at every school are free to set their own bell schedules, as long as they accomplish one thing: Nothing may cut into students' instructional time. But they also need to set aside time for faculty meetings and training sessions. And they do that mostly by tweaking when the day starts and ends.

It works like this: The state education code requires schools to provide a set number of instructional minutes during a traditional 180-day school year. Required class time varies depending on grade level -- and many districts, including L.A. Unified, exceed them -- but state law ranges from 36,000 minutes a year (200 minutes per day) for kindergarten to 64,800 minutes a year (360 minutes per day) for high school.

To provide teachers and staff members with professional development and meeting time without losing instructional minutes, schools shave time off teachers' preparation periods in the morning and afternoon by starting classes a few minutes early. That allows schools to "bank" time without losing instructional minutes. A school will begin at 7:56, for example, "banking" four minutes per day to be rolled into a larger block of time for meetings later.

Q: Why do so many L.A. Unified schools schedule their banked time days on Tuesdays?

A: In the past, schools could select whatever day they wanted to end classes early and send students home so administrators could hold staff meetings. But this became confusing and difficult, particularly for parents with children in different schools. As a result, the district mandates Tuesdays as the day when "banked" time can be used.

Sandra Carter, principal of the year-round Glassell Park Elementary, said the banked time Tuesdays at her school are useful and work well for the 35 teachers on her staff. "I'd do it every week if I could," she said. Teachers discuss instructional topics such as newly required math or reading programs.

Some teachers in the district, however, following their union's lead, refer to these as Terrible Tuesdays because they are mostly ordered by the school district.

"In some cases, it's just not done as well as it should [be]," said Sam Kresner, executive assistant to the president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

Q: On the school calendar, some days are listed as "shortened" days. What are those?

A: Shortened days include a lunch period and typically shave an hour or so off the school day. These are used by elementary schools for parent-teacher conferences. But secondary schools also use a few of these a year for other staff meetings. Decisions on when to hold these shortened days and why are made at individual schools.

Q: What's a "minimum" day?

A: Minimum days are the shortest school days, with students leaving before lunch. They are used for special professional development or faculty meetings, and local schools decide when to schedule them. Carter said she uses five minimum days a year to allow teachers who work on different year-round schedules, or tracks, to meet.

Q: Calendars also include "teacher buy-back days" and "pupil-free days." What are those?

A: Buy-back days are required by the state, which provides additional money for this type of teacher preparation. Students do not attend school on those days. Typically, campuses schedule three of these days at the beginning of the year. Last year, Kresner said, the time was used mostly for meetings on math instruction.

Pupil-free days also have no effect on students' instructional time. They are used at the beginning or end of the semester or school year for teachers to set up their classrooms, receive textbooks and generally prepare.

Q: Some schools are offering an extra class in the mornings, referred to as Period A or Period 0 on some campuses. Those classes typically start at 7. What's that about?

A: Some secondary schools add a voluntary extra period to offer elective courses or other classes that students cannot fit into their regular six-period school day. But students who must ride the bus are not picked up in time for those early lessons. In other words, parents, to get your student there, you're on your own.

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