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Thursday, March 22 Local

Board, administration differ on rotating class schedule

Budget ramifications and the implication for special education students were the overriding concerns Tuesday as the Board of Education and the school administration discussed the rotating class schedule.

Darien Public Schools administrators recommend keeping the six-day schedule, while the special education students transition from a five- to a six-day schedule over the course of the next year.

The Board of Education, however, is not entirely convinced.

The six-day rotating schedule affects specials programs, such as music and library. For instance, if a student has music on a Monday one week, he or she will not have music until the Tuesday of the week following.

"What I'm hearing is that we still don't know what the possible budget implications will be of the six-day rotation," Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross said at the meeting.

During the June 10 meeting, it was discovered that the special education students were not operating entirely on the six-day schedule like their general education peers.

Hagerty-Ross said the board faces a challenge discussing the change to a six-day schedule for the special education students because all the issues aren't known.

"As a board, we can't opine on this because we don't know the dollar amount on this and if it's significant, we'll have a problem," Hagerty-Ross said.

Assistant Superintendent of K-12 Curriculum Tim Canty told the board that it is important that the district conduct an analysis to determine the associated costs of the change.

Special education ombudsman John Verre told the board that he can start collecting data early in the school year with the Planning and Placement Team meetings for the 2014-15 school year. He said he would be able to collect sufficient data before the start of the budget-setting season and that the number of service hours would not change. The data would include the scheduling of contracted service providers, such as speech pathologists.

"The children with disabilities don't go to school on two different schedules," Verre said. "They go to school on a six-day schedule, their classes are on a six-day schedule, but they receive many of their services on a five-day schedule."

Verre and Canty assured the board that no special education student had been denied services with the five-day schedule.

Canty offered the board two possible ways to transition the special education students into the six-day rotation -- work over a period of 10 months in a typical PPT cycle or in a specially-arranged, accelerated PPT schedule over a period of six weeks to six months. Canty favored taking 10 months to transition the schedules.

According to Canty, the elementary school principals "felt there had been a positive impact on the daily operations of the elementary schools."

Overall, the Board of Education has not been entirely convinced that the six-day schedule rotation is effective since its introduction in April 2013. The administration was allowed to implement the new schedule without board approval. James Plutte, who served on the board in April 2013, was the only member to vocally support the change.

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The schedule rotation was introduced to help alleviate the space crunch in the elementary schools due to increasing enrollment. Hindley Elementary School was frequently referred to during discussions because several gym classes were taking place in the common areas of the building.

During Tuesday's meeting, however, it was noted that there is still a gym class in the common area at Hindley, despite using the six-day schedule.

The schedule change reduced the number of hours students spent in music and gym classes. It also allowed for an additional World Language class to be added. The band, orchestra and Idea Program also still operate on the five-day schedule.

"Normally, when something like this is brought to the board, budgetary implications are part of the presentation and that's how we're charged with the state to make our decisions," Hagerty-Ross said.

She added that she feels the "cart is before the horse" and that she's not sure how to approach the schedule transition.

"We're already in a six-day, the children are used to a six-day and to flip it back to where we were (in the five-day schedule) while we investigate the possible budget implications and the service provider implications doesn't sound like what our principals at our schools are suggesting that we do," Hagerty-Ross said. "But it makes our job harder to put the pieces together to ensure that we're going in the right direction." The administration is charged with investigating whether contracted service providers for special education students would be affected as part of the six-day rotation.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Lynne Pierson told the board that while the administration did have "insufficient data at this moment in time" they do have "practical consideration of the children who need to start school in a few weeks."

She also noted that there had been little discussion Tuesday about the lack of the space, which was a major driver in transitioning to the six-day schedule for the 2013-14 school year.

"As we sat down and we talked about could we return to a five-day program for everyone in late August this year, the answer became fairly clear, fairly quickly that it would be extremely difficult to do," Pierson said. "It would be very disruptive. We probably would not have the space available because quite frankly, we have more children today than we had a year and a half ago when this plan was first brought to the board and discussed and approved at that point in time."

Hagerty-Ross added that the board never approved the schedule change and it was implemented by the administration.

"The space issues cannot be minimized," Pierson said. "I think they are even more precarious and serious now than they ever were then."