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First 'Early Dismissal Wednesday' Held In The District



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First ‘Early Dismissal Wednesday’ Held In The District

By Eliza Hallabeck

Unlike most early afternoons at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the sound of students came only from the school’s cafeteria as The Education Connection’s after-school program was underway on Wednesday, October 6.

It was the first Early Dismissal Wednesday in the school district, and it allowed teachers to meet for professional development time. High school, middle school, and Reed Intermediate teachers met at their respective schools, and all elementary teachers met at Sandy Hook Elementary School for the professional development time.

The Board of Education voted unanimously at a June 15 meeting to release students early on the first Wednesday of each month, starting on October 6, for teachers and administrators to hold professional learning community meetings.

To accommodate the early release, The Education Connection’s regular hours were extended and began earlier in the day than normal. The Newtown High School field hockey program also volunteered after school for the Early Release Wednesday, according to Newtown Youth Academy’s Kyle Lyddy, at the NYA for it’s first “Half Day at NYA.” The program was developed to help accommodate students after school during the early release days, and the field hockey team “brought great energy and enthusiasm to the day which all of the kids loved and we were so lucky to have them,” said Mr Lyddy by e-mail. First year head coach Amanda Shevlin volunteered her team for the day, which included kickball, soccer, dodge ball, and more.

According to Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson, the Early Dismissal Wednesdays allow teachers to meet without incurring further costs to the school district, and give teachers designated time to meet as a whole, which has never happened in the school district.

Newtown Elementary School Principals Jo-Ann Peters, Barbara Gasparine, Christopher Geissler, and Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung walked the hallways, stopping in to witness professional development communities taking place.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Linda Gejda said multiple teachers in the district volunteered to facilitate the communities, and attended a special event on September 24 to learn how to do so. A full overview of the professional development days scheduled in the district is available on the school’s website, www.newtown.k12.ct.us.

On October 6, each professional development community discussed writing in the district, and how the community meeting time discussions will work in the future.

Walking through Sandy Hook School’s hallways with Board of Education Chairman William Hart, Dr Robinson said she saw cross-district conversations happening as teachers from the grade levels met from each elementary school in the district for the first time. Dr Robinson also said she saw teachers sharing ideas, “Which is exactly what we want to have happen.”

As professionals, Dr Robinson said, it is always important to learn how to do a better job.

“The high school, due to the schedule, has never been able to do anything collaborative,” said Dr Robinson. “So this is a big step.”

Dr Robinson said one of the reasons behind holding the professional development days was to help the good things in the district grow beyond one classroom or one school.

Mr Hart agreed, and said teaching is a traditionally isolated work environment. He also said there is no other time to have collaboration between the grade levels without setting aside the time for it.

“I think [Dr Robinson] has done a wonderful job to make the school year longer over the years to give us the ability to do this,” said Mr Hart, regarding Dr Robinson’s recommendations to the school board in the past couple years to add five minutes to the school day for each school year.

Like at Sandy Hook School, each school’s professional learning communities discussed writing in the district. Newtown Middle School principal Diane Sherlock said the goal is to have students writing across the content areas.

“It was really productive,” she said. “We placed every teacher in the school in one of six groups.”

Those groups discussed common expectations and ideas to get students writing in each content area, according to Ms Sherlock.

“We had really good facilitators,” said Ms Sherlock, adding later, “and I think teachers left really excited.”

For the next Early Release Wednesday, Ms Sherlock said teachers will be evaluating examples of student writing from the middle school. While no after school activities had begun at the school by October 6, Ms Sherlock said all after school activities, with possible exceptions for programs starting after the release time for teachers, at the school will be suspended for the next Early Release Wednesday, scheduled for November 3.

When speaking of his impression on the first Early Release Wednesday, Reed Intermediate School Assistant Principal Anthony Salvatore said one teacher said the time went by fast, and that is a good indicator, according to Dr Salvatore, of how engaging the time was for teachers.

“[The time] led to a lot of good dialogue around student writing,” Dr Salvatore said.

Dr Salvatore was one of the discussion facilitators at Reed for the day, and said discussion centered around the rubric for creative writing and creative ideas to implement writing lessons in the different content areas.

“There was a sharing of expertise among colleagues,” Dr Salvatore said, “which was rewarding.”

While Reed Intermediate School teachers have been attending professional learning community meetings for the last three years, Dr Salvatore said this was something different. At first, teachers did not know what to expect. But, he said, “At the end of the session they saw the merits in the discussion, and in how we could apply it to everyday teaching.”

Unlike every other school in the district, which have held professional meetings between teachers to different degrees before, Newtown High School teachers have never attended professional learning community meetings, according to NHS Principal Charles Dumais.

“Having the opportunity to work together has just opened a lot of doors for people,” said Mr Dumais.

When asked about parent complaints regarding having to drive students back to school for activities, Mr Dumais said those complaints mainly come from misunderstandings. There were a limited number of activities scheduled for the day after the professional learning communities concluded. Mr Dumais also said the cafeteria was opened, with security oversight, for students to remain at the school if needed.

Dr Gejda reflected on her feelings while walking through Sandy Hook School on Friday.

“I’m thrilled,” she said, walking between classrooms where teachers discussed the merits of argumentative writing versus persuasive writing, and other topics.

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