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How many hours should kids be in school? Dozens of Denver schools are reducing class time so teachers can plan.

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After Teller Elementary School announced plans to set aside half a day every Friday next year for teachers to plan lessons, analyze student performance data and take time for professional development, Principal Sabrina Bates received a slew of sharp words from parents: “You obviously don’t care about our kids,” one fired-up parent wrote. Another sounded off in an email, complaining “the kids barely get enough time to be schooled as it is.”

Teller Elementary School, in east Denver, will add to more than 80 out of 207 district-run schools in Denver that will cut classroom time to make room for teacher planning and professional development next year, raising concerns among some parents that schools are going too far in scaling back hours of instruction.

More than 80 schools under Denver Public Schools have an early release this school year while another nine schools include a late start in their schedule, according to district data. It’s not clear how many of those schools have converted those hours into time for teacher planning.

Teachers’ need for more time, however, is colliding with the same need among many parents, particularly those with rigid work schedules — leading to a polarizing pair of questions: How many hours should kids be in school, and what are schools responsible for during those hours?

Administrators like Bates say that as teachers’ responsibilities have continued to multiply, particularly since the onset of the pandemic, it’s become critical to carve out more time during their school day working hours for them to tackle parts of their job they simply don’t have the capacity to prioritize. Preserving extra time for teachers is one way she is optimistic she can also keep her best teachers and recruit other top-tier educators — at a time 128 of Colorado’s 178 school districts are using four-day school weeks to draw teachers to their classrooms.

The Colorado Department of Education requires schools operate at least 160 days per year, with middle and high schoolers in classroom seats at least 1,080 hours per school year and elementary schoolers spending at least 990 hours learning per year.

There is some wiggle room. After accounting for teacher work days and parent-teacher conferences, middle and high schools must clock at least 1,056 hours while elementary schools must tally at least 968 hours. Schools also add contingency days onto the academic calendar in case snow days, school threats or violence, or the death of a teacher impact school hours during the year.

It’s not unusual for schools to have a late start or early release day each week, said Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer of CDE.

“As long as they have the number of hours, we have no concerns with that,” Okes said, noting that CDE verified that Teller Elementary School still will meet seat time requirements next year.

A sign that says "Teller" hangs over a sidewalk
This entryway at Teller Elementary School in Denver, photographed Jan. 25, 2024, leads to a playground often bustling with kids. Parents of some of those kids are trying to come to terms with a new school schedule next year that will replace Friday afternoon learning with planning time for educators. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Even with early-release Fridays, the school — which has about 560 kids in preschool through fifth grade — will exceed the state’s mandated number of hours next year, with instruction time totaling 1,134.5 hours, according to Bates.

Bates decided to begin sending students home early every Friday next year after collecting feedback from staff on both the school’s bell schedule and the prospect of a regular late start or early release. The district approved an early release day for the school Jan. 2, according to Bates, who wrote in a Jan. 5 email to families that Fridays tend to have the highest rates of student absenteeism and more parents pick their child up early that day.

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Teachers need those afternoons to work on tasks they must otherwise try to squeeze into their 40-minute daily planning period, including building on strategies to help students grow and collaborating with their colleagues on lessons and curriculum. Bates said teacher planning periods are often filled by meetings to review student data or discuss a learning plan for a student with special needs.

“It’s a very short period of time to get clerical work done, to get any type of professional learning done, to take a deeper dive and look at individual student data,” she told The Colorado Sun. “Anything outside of instruction, they’re given 40 minutes a day to do that.”

And it’s “never enough,” she added.

Teachers’ time has only become more constricted as their responsibilities have ballooned, Bates said.

A banner on a pole reads "Perseverence" while another banner to the right contains the Teller Elementary School logo
A school banner hangs outside Teller Elementary School in Denver Jan. 25, 2024. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Teachers have had to broaden their focus to help students battling mental health struggles and incorporate social-emotional learning into their classrooms. They have also had to adapt to teaching groups of students with much greater learning differences in classrooms that feel “very split,” Bates said, with some students excelling well above grade level and others falling severely behind.

Additionally, educators must take two years of extra courses on their own time to earn a DPS endorsement that enables them to teach gifted and talented students. They must also complete additional professional development centered on equity this school year, Bates said.

Another major responsibility: Both teachers and building leaders are obligated to complete state training modules on the science of reading.

“It’s evergrowing,” Bates said. “It’s at the point now where it’s just not sustainable in a 40-hour work week.”

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