School board accused of 'sweatshop mentality' Loss of half-days agitates teachers

April 11, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Harford County's school board demonstrated a "sweatshop mentality" when it eliminated elementary teachers' eight half-days of planning time, the president of the teachers union says.

"I'm furious," said Jean R. Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association. "The school board has once again taken advantage of teachers and their willingness to work. They are creating a sweatshop mentality."

Ms. Thomas said she would urge teachers to cut back or eliminate their unpaid after-school activities, such as tutoring students.

Unswayed by speeches, pickets, telephone calls or hundreds of postcards, the school board voted 6-1 to eliminate the eight half-days.

About 50 teachers picketed the board's Monday night meeting at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air. Teachers carried posters that read, "Quality teachers need quality time," "Why would you even think of this?" and "Prior planning prevents poor performance."

Teachers had also phoned the seven school board members and mailed postcards to their homes in support of the half-days.

Once the meeting started, the picketing teachers joined about 50 more inside the school's crowded auditorium.

Several teachers spoke, urging the school board to keep the half-days. Since the mid-1980s, elementary students have been sent home after lunch on eight days to create planning time for teachers.

Rosemary King Johnston, the union's elementary teacher representative, pleaded with the board members to keep the half-days. She said teachers used the time to call parents, write report card comments, plan lessons, decorate bulletin boards or look for research materials in the library.

"We desperately need this time," she said.

Only school board member Tom Hess voted against the proposal.

"I don't believe we can take away the planning time without giving teachers something in return," he said, drawing teachers' applause.

School Superintendent Ray R. Keech said he would urge principals to help elementary teachers develop "creative ways" to find more planning time within the school day. Paul Schatz, a teacher at Ring Factory Elementary in Bel Air, said he already spends every Sunday afternoon and at least two hours each day preparing for class. That's in addition to his scheduled 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. workday, he said.

"Those half-days are vital. It is an investment that pays off richly in the classroom," he said.

Half-days are also the only time elementary teachers have to meet, he said.

Elementary teachers average about 10 minutes less per day in planning time than secondary teachers, who get about 50 minutes daily. And while secondary teachers have more students, elementary teachers have more subjects and therefore just as many papers to grade as middle and high school teachers, Mr. Schatz said.

Since the beginning of the school year, Mr. Keech has been lobbying to eliminate the half-days to increase the amount of time students spend in the classroom.

"Research has shown that . . . the amount of time students spend in the classroom learning is the most important factor in their education," he said.

Also, the superintendent said parents dreaded the half-days because they created a child-care nightmare.

Elementary teachers get planning time while their students are in physical education or library classes or, at least in half of the schools, music classes. Next year the school system plans to hire 16 art teachers so all schools can offer art classes, Mr. Keech said.

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