The St. Michael-Albertville school board voted 5-1 Monday evening to allow a one-year trial of the proposed elementary-level orientation days. Next fall, the STMA school district will not have open house nights the last week in August for grades 1-4. Instead, parents will sign up for one-on-one, 30-minute orientations with their child’s teacher on the traditional first two days of school, which will be Sept. 8 and 9 next year. Grades K-4 will officially begin school on Thursday, Sept. 10, while grades 5-12 will continue to begin the day after Labor Day.
School district leaders said that elementary principals and two staff members per building formed a committee last year to look into changing the schools’ traditional open house format after some teachers voiced opinions of not having enough time at the 90-minute open houses to properly meet students and parents. The committee decided to remedy that problem with a two-day orientation, which would give students and parents time to meet the teacher personally and for the teacher to administer some benchmark tests to students before the school year begins. Other activities completed at the orientation will include bus evacuation procedures, possibly hearing and vision screening, practicing proper lunch procedures, and dropping off any needed forms. School pictures may be taken during the orientations, but it’s not yet clear if the district’s photographer can accommodate being at all three elementary schools and the primary school during those two days. Special Education and English Language Learners would also be able to meet with case managers and other staff when available.
School board members Drew Scherber, Tim Lewis and Hollee Saville said they would have preferred to have seen some parent involvement or input in the process, as only principals and teachers played a role in the change. Saville also asked if taking away two days of school would work for teachers, who have tight schedules and a lot of information to get through with their students. Fieldstone Elementary Principal, Jeanette Aanerud, said the orientation will save several days, if not weeks, worth of time due to fewer distractions in September, with students completing many beginning-of-the-year tasks before the official start of school.
However, committee member and third-grade teacher, Jenny Fritz, said she and others have some concerns about the lost classroom time. She estimates the orientation will save four hours’ worth of classroom interruptions if calculating generously.
“We’d be giving up two instructional days to eliminate four hours of what we might call distractions,” she said.
Fritz said she likes the idea of being able to connect with parents in a less chaotic setting, but pointed out that there are downfalls to the new system. She said testing is too long in older elementary grades to complete during the 30-minute orientation, and she said the new schedule would be hard for school nurses, who would no longer have a few days between the open house and start of school to enter in all necessary medical information.
Despite those concerns, many committee members spoke of the benefits of individual orientations and the opportunity for students, parents and teachers to get to know each other and share information without other families in the room.
Laurie Pearson, a second grade teacher, said her connection with her students is her number one priority to make sure their school year goes smoothly.
“When I have open house and I have eight families in my room with siblings and everything else, it’s really hard for me to connect with that family and find out what kind of concerns they have,” she said. “I can send home papers after papers, which probably don’t get read in the folder I send home, versus being able to have a one-on-one conference.”
The orientation days are planned to run from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. on Tuesday and 7 a.m.-3 p.m. on Wednesday, but some school board members took issue with that schedule, wondering if that gives enough evening availability to working parents. A 7 p.m. end time would make 6:30 p.m. the latest possible orientation slot, and some board members asked to shift the Tuesday schedule later so there is more evening availability. Superintendent Dr. Ann-Marie Foucault said district leadership would look into that possibility.
Some school board members expressed concern for the potential hardship for working families in finding childcare and possibly taking time off work to attend if evening slots fill up quickly, but Aanerud and other board members said they felt most parents have the flexibility to rearrange work schedules if given advanced notice.
“I’m guessing most parents probably take those couple days off work anyways because the kids are going back to school,” board member Kari Dwinnell said.
Saville thought more parents would be likely to show up at the orientation when they have an appointment time, versus the open house format that doesn’t require a commitment. Lewis said he feels this method, where teachers will learn which kids need extra help before school even begins, will be invaluable to them.
The board voted 5-1 to approve the fall orientation schedule on a one-year interim basis, at which point the district and school board can survey staff and assess how it went. Board chair Scherber was the board’s lone dissenting voice, saying he was not yet sold on the idea.