The benefits of a Balanced Day

We know the CBE can’t continue to operate as it has. The budget imbalance is growing, and the status quo isn’t working. We need to think about a range of things differently. Parents are also looking at school fees that continue to edge upwards.

Things have to change.

What changes could be made to improve student learning and help the budget?

I’d like to suggest that how we organize school days could help.

In Ontario, most schools have moved to a provincially-mandated Balanced Day schedule. This is where students start school, have two hours of instruction, followed by a 40 minute break (20 minutes for eating, and 20 minutes for outdoor play). They then have another 2 hours of instruction, then a similar 40 minute break. After the second break comes another 2 hours of instruction. The breaks ensure the day is broken into equal and productive work blocks.

Compare the two sets of schedules:

Ontario balanced day scenario:

balanced day hours

emh hours

This is an example of a Calgary elementary school schedule. There is a morning recess at 10:15, not listed, and no afternoon recess. Those were cut out many years ago at most schools. The result is an afternoon block from 12:27 to 2:53 p.m. with no break. Where as in the morning, when the kids are probably mostly on task, they break after less than 90 minutes. The morning is broken up with recess, while the afternoon time lags without a break.

Balanced day better reflects how kids should eat (smaller, more frequent meals) and cuts down on the costly transition time – putting on coats and boots. As well, many parents will tell you that when it`s very cold out, a full 40 minutes of outside play time is too much.

There have been a number of studies that show the benefits of balanced day on learning.

So, how could this impact the CBE? It could change the way the organization thinks about lunch and lunch room supervision – and the fees that go with it.

CBE receives $4.6 million in fees. Parents pay between $250 and $270 for lunch room supervision for the year, which works out to about $1.50 per day. There is an entire bureaucracy created to manage fees. There are six fee clerks and one supervisor to collect these fees. Non Payers over the threshold of $15 are sent to a collection agency, which then takes 30 per cent of anything recovered. (There is a moral question about using collection agencies for collecting fees, but that is a topic for another post.)

The budget document, on page 80, says that fees only cover 75 per cent of the cost of the program, the rest is paid for out of school funds. (ie, instructional grants.) Up to 6.7 per cent of what is paid by parents is diverted to cover admin costs. ($16.78 per student.)

For the 2012-13 school year, 88 per cent of the $21.7 million in assessed fees were paid. But another table shows 17.4 per cent of students, more than 8,000, were either granted waivers, or did not pay for lunch room supervision.

Lunchroom supervisors are paid between $18.68 and $23.02 per hour, and work about 10 hours per week. (I took this from a recent job posting.)  Now, remember, that you only need them for one of those hours, and you realize that there is a lot of wasted money.

How much money We don’t really know. There isn’t a line item in the budget to explain it. Some schools, like middle schools, get teachers to supervise over the lunch hour because they only have a couple of grade 5-6 classes. In my kids’ elementary schools, kids are bunched in groups of 50 plus. They sit on the floor to eat. It’s not ideal.

Moving to a balanced day could mean that the lunch room supervision staff actually work the two hours they are paid for. Or it could mean schools move to a system where teachers pick up the supervision duties – saving the cost of the extra staff.

I know many of you would say that the teacher’s union would never go for that. In our Ontario school board there were 2 PD days all year. That’s it. Teachers got prep time during the day, when the kids were with the music teacher, PE teacher or  the teacher-librarian. (They actually have those kinds of teachers out there.) I’d argue that is more productive use of prep time, than a full workshop every third or fourth Friday.

Maybe you throw it all together for discussion, talk to teachers and find a way to make lunch work for everyone – kids, teachers, parents and the cash-strapped school boards.

Hey, by-election candidates. Care to weigh in? Parents, what do you think?