When the 2022-23 Denton ISD calendar dropped, some parents were irked to see 18 half-days planned throughout the school year.
Each of those half-days lands on a Wednesday.
Some families registered their irritation with heated calls to Denton ISD. Assistant Superintendent of Academic Programs Susannah O’Bara spent time with parents to explain that this school year’s calendar makes time for teacher collaborations and faculty team developments.
For some families, a half-day of school on a Wednesday is a hardship — especially for single parents who can’t easily leave work to care for younger children who would normally be at school until at least 3 p.m.
“Most of the people we talked to, once they understood what we’re doing on these days, weren’t as upset,” O’Bara said. “Once they understood that the teachers aren’t going to be alone in their classrooms, grading papers or getting caught up, things calmed down.”
A time deficit
O’Bara is the Denton ISD administrator who coordinates the district calendar. It’s no easy feat.
The Texas Educational Code mandates public schools spend 75,600 minutes of the school year in instructional time.
“That’s a non-negotiable by Texas Education Code,” O’Bara said. “We have to have 180 instructional days, which, if we hit 180 instructional days, allows for additional resources for us to provide summer school.”
Texas teachers are required to work for 187 days during the year, which is reflected in their contracts.
O’Bara tries to plan a school calendar that synchronizes state mandates, instructional rhythms and the university calendars.
“For example, the first semester — the fall semester — ends before winter break,” she said. “We do it because it’s logical. Otherwise, you take a two-week break in learning and it interrupts instructional cycle. That’s problematic. But the bigger piece was if our high school kids are doing dual-credit courses, they’re doing it through the university with the teacher on campus. So go back to the 2020-2021 [school year] when we had to push our start date back for COVID. Our semester didn’t end until mid-January. That creates a real issue for those students, the university and the teachers. So there are a lot of variables that we work with to hit all of those to make the best instructional calendar.”
When O’Bara started coordinating the calendar seven years ago, the state mandated 180 days of class for students and 187 days for teachers. O’Bara was able to coordinate the calendar on her own. But when the state shifted mandates to minutes, O’Bara said she needed a committee to make sure students were served and faculty could teach, communicate with parents and take care of regular duties that serve special education students and include individual education plans and other district work.
O’Bara said the committee asks the Education Improvement Council, a district group including teachers from each campus, parents, community and business members, for feedback on the calendar, too. The committee has to consider a number of variables: that some courses are taught in a single semester, and that the spring semester is longer than the fall semester.
“Really and truly, everything about the calendar is for instructional purposes, right? I know it doesn’t feel that way on the parent side,” O’Bara said. “It may not always feel that way on the kid or the teacher side. But everything about it is to design the best instructional calendar.”
Less time for faculty development
O’Bara said district officials surveyed teachers about what they need most from leadership.
“Their No. 1 response was ‘we need time,’” she said. “It was: We are going all the time. We don’t have the time to stop, look at student work, compare student work, talk about how my kids did, how your kids did and what we’re going to do about it.”
Denton ISD teachers have full days. It’s not uncommon for teachers to arrive at school at 7 a.m. — teachers have to report to their campuses at 7:30 a.m. to be ready for students to arrive at 7:35 a.m. — teach through the end of the school day, and then fit lesson planning and preparation into the end of the school day until 5 or 6 p.m. Many teachers take work home, with many Denton ISD teachers saying they grade papers, projects and writing assignments after hours.
“Children walk in their room, and all that [teachers] get until 3 o’clock dismissal is one 45-minute planning period,” O’Bara said. “That’s another Texas Education Code rule: Teachers get 450 minutes for planning every 10 days. So 45 minutes, 10 days, right? Every two weeks, they get 450 total minutes.”
Teachers don’t have to plan for 45 minutes, O’Bara said. They can break the 450 minutes into blocks that best fit their schedules.
“It doesn’t have to be 45 minutes a day, but if not, then they don’t have a break during the day,” O’Bara said.
The only other break teachers get is a 30-minute duty-free lunch.
But that time goes fast for teachers. Some of it is grabbing lunch and dashing to the bathroom.
But O’Bara said the weekly time is often consumed by emailing and calling parents, and having meetings to assess and evaluate needs of special education students, students who speak English as a second language and students who need accommodations for disabilities.
The committee that coordinated this school year’s calendar responded to teachers by building development time into it.
Teachers dig into data
Across the district on Aug. 31, teachers were already huddled in classrooms to take the temperature of their classrooms.
At Adkins Elementary School in the Lantana area, third grade teachers had about a dozen tabs open on a large screen in the front of the classroom, where they toggled between charts that show how their students are doing in reading, writing, math and science.
“We’re actually all really data-driven,” said Adkins reading and writing teacher Shelby Payeur, an eighth-year teacher guiding third graders through language arts.
The Adkins teachers — Payeur and Jen McCord on language arts, and Emily Curtis and Denise Carrillo teaching math, science and social studies — use color coding to highlight learning priorities, and share spreadsheets tracking students’ assessments and progress. Their computer savvy allows them to drill down to the answers to four questions teachers will answer during their collaboration days.
“When we look at it as a whole, we look for trends,” said Adkins Principal Erin Vennell.
Assessments help the teachers find out where students need more help or bigger challenges.
“If, for some reason, a lot of kids didn’t get it, then that is where the teacher tells us, ‘Oh wait, I need to go back and think about what does my practice look like?’ Because part of our professional learning team time requires this vulnerability that says my kids didn’t do well on this ticket,” Vennell said. “They can ask each other, ‘How did you teach this?’ And so, then we really collaborate and we’re teaching each other other ideas on how to come together to support the kids.”
At Harpool Middle School, also in the Lantana area, the atmosphere was much more organic. Eighth grade U.S. history teachers Drake Lawson and Eric Schaffer looked over lesson plans and state-mandated essential skills with Texas history teachers Steven Campbell, who is also the volleyball, basketball and track coach, and Ryan Guilford, who also coaches football, basketball, cross country and track.
The four discussed when they could swap ideas that could build continuity, since seventh graders study Texas history.
“What we’re doing is talking about assessments, and how we can align our lessons so that, when they send their seventh graders on to our classes in eighth grade, we can build on what they’ve done — especially in essential skills. And when we send our kids to Guyer High, they’ll be ready for the social studies classes there,” Lawson said.
“What we’re doing here is this ... pilot [program] we’re trying out here at Harpool,” Lawson said. “We’re trying to align our our subjects in the same skills. We’re not going to mess with the content we have in our classes. With this, it’s like, let’s try to improve the things we know that do transfer, like skills.”
The things that transfer from grade level to grade level? Interpreting and reading maps, understanding charts and analyzing historical documents. Lawson and Schaffer won’t teach Texas history. But if Campbell and Guilford succeed, their students will be able to read historical maps, deal with charts and read historical papers and documents.
At Guyer High School, seven English teachers polish an assessment that will gauge how well their students comprehend a short story they’ve been assigned, and will test their writing chops ahead of the State of Texas Assessments of Academy Readiness test. The teachers discuss the material, collaborate on writing competent test questions, and debate the best virtual platform to administer the test.
The teachers said the opportunity to huddle allows them to measure their students’ progress.
“We plan as a team at least once a week,” said Alyscia Ellis. “But even then, we have an hour-and-a-half team time that they have scheduled into our day. But even that is, you know, phone calls and kids running by to drop off things. And one of us will have a meeting to attend. So even those can be very chaotic.
“This is no students in the building. This is what we get to do without interruptions.”
Shanna Stovall said the team gives the same assessments, so they can see immediately how students are doing on their assignments and skills.
“So we can look at it and see, wow, 40% of our students missed [test question No.] 31,” Stovall said. “We can look at that and find out: Is that us? Is that an ‘us’ concern? Or is that a student concern?’ And because they miss No. 31, we can see what [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills] do they need additional help with? So we don’t have students but we have the same data. And that data helps us help each other find out how students can improve on these elements.”
Denton ISD administrators will evaluate how adding more time for their teachers to collaborate will affect students, both in terms of test scores and in class performance.
O’Bara said the half-days will inconvenience some families, but that with after-school programs hosted by the district and the city, district leadership is hoping that students will reap the dividends.
“Our teachers are professionals, and this is just one way to honor that,” O’Bara said. “Denton ISD teachers want to do whatever they can to serve their students, and we think this is a good way to help them do that. They asked us for more time to collaborate, and we’re giving it to them.”