The push for a longer day at a Denver elementary school has parents up in arms and has raised questions about the correct protocol for making substantial changes to a school’s model.

Denison Elementary School in southwest Denver is one of several district schools that has considered making the change to a longer school day. At some schools, the transition has gone smoothly, but others backed away from the model after uproar from parents or struggles with the longer day’s day-to-day implications.

At Denison, the conflict has divided parents and staff, with many parents opposing the change and a majority of staff supporting it.

The conflict, which has played out in heated community meetings and the school’s Facebook page, has centered on two questions: what is more time in school worth, and how should the decision to add more time be made? Parents have said their input was ignored, questioned the academic value of the time and complained of lost time with their children. But for the school’s staff, the change would mean uninterrupted time with students, more planning time and a stronger commitment to the school’s Montessori model.

The plan that principal Katy Mattis and other members of the planning committee put before the school’s governing committee for approval last week includes three major add-ons to the school’s schedule:

  • an uninterrupted work period of 120 minutes for students to do their own work at their own pace, which is a common practice in private Montessori schools but is often difficult to work in around other constraints in public Montessori schools.
  • additional planning time for teachers to meet as grade-level teams.
  • an extra day added to parent teacher conferences.

It’s the second iteration of the plan, created after parents vehemently opposed the original addition of nearly two hours to the school day. Denison’s plan for an extended day came out of a design process funded in part by the National Center for Time and Learning, which is part of a national movement pushing for “more and better learning time.” But Mattis says their plan is an anomaly; their focus is on improving the Montessori elements of the school, rather than the more typically touted benefits of an extended day and year.

“From the moment that we applied for this, I have been very clear that my sole motivation is the full implementation of Montessori,” said Mattis.

And she says it came from community input.

“Last year, I spent a lot of time listening to parents’ and teachers’ concerns,” said Mattis, who took over as principal last year. “What came across from teachers was that they could not have a full Montessori experience.”

Teachers felt students were constantly pulled out for interventions or for second language instruction. Teachers who were pulling students out disliked pulling them away from the student-driven work time that characterizes the Montessori model.

“For the kids who are pulled out all the time, it’s hard to get in the flow,” said Mattis. She took a hard look at how much it was impacting teachers’ time. “I took one teacher’s classrooms. She has one day a week where 15 minutes her whole class is with her. [There’s] one day where she has zero minutes where her whole class is with her.”

What’s more, both teachers and parents agreed that district-mandated assessments were also interfering with students’ Montessori experience.

“We are testing them on a totally different curriculum than we are teaching them,” said Mattis. She wanted to add more planning time so teachers could write school-wide tests that better matched what they teach in class.

Those goals have found support even among parents who oppose the longer day.

“Everybody has agreed on the standardized testing things,” said parent Nathan Jaret, who has been vocal in opposing Mattis’ plan. “It would be better to implement assessments that are authentically Montessori.”

But he and others feel that those problems don’t require the 45 additional minutes proposed under the latest plan for teachers to plan for assessmens (that’s down from the hour and a half extension proposed earlier this year that provoked substantial outcry).

“How much time would it take for teachers to get together outside of school hours to write tests?” said Jaret. “I don’t fault them for that but they’re not willing to sacrifice their time to make it more authentically Montessori. But they are asking parents to sacrifice their time with their families.”

He also worries the longer schedule will drain students and teachers’ energy.

“I would expect many kids in the school will get extremely tired and burned out,” said Jaret. “For my family personally, it’s going to mean significantly less time to spend with our children.”

And for many parents, the motivation for the changes is unclear.

“The driving force kind of shifts around,” said Jennifer Greig, whose children attend Denison. “To me, it appears you could do a 90 minute uninterrupted work period and only add 15 minutes.”

She said a lot of parents would be supportive of that plan, without the other additions to the school day.

Greig said, “Why not focus on one thing and do it well without alienating parents?”

But the most contentious debate has focused on the school’s community input process, a fight which attracted media attention earlier this year. After parents protested a planned vote on March 18th, shortly after the plan drew widespread attention, the school hosted a series of parent meetings and distributed a parent survey. Even so, many still feel the outreach was insufficient and parental input has been ignored.

“We don’t feel enough effort has been made to involve the community in a systematic way,” said Jaret. He took issue with the survey, which was not anonymous and was completed by only 57 percent of the school’s families. School officials said the survey wasn’t anonymous so the school could follow up with those who didn’t return it and that the return rate was higher than most surveys distributed by the school.

Denison is one of several schools participating in similar planning processes, although it has received the most attention.

“All of these schools in this process are different,” said Mary Lindimore, the local representative for NCTL, which has supported Denison’s planning process.

When Chalkbeat asked if the community engagement process met NCTL’s expectations, Lindimore replied, “absolutely.”

Just because the conversation has been heated doesn’t mean the community process isn’t working, she said.

“Parents ask good questions and they should ask good questions,” Lindimore said. “It’s their students going to the school.”

The divisiveness of the issue at Denison is not atypical, said Lindimore. “You will never get 100 percent agreement,” she told parents at the contentious March 18th meeting.

And the process plays out differently at each school.

“Some schools just ask more questions,” said Lindimore. And, she said, not all of them will take action to turn their plans into reality. Last year, eight schools participated in the same program. Only four opted to add time to their school day or year.

“It’s a very big review process,” said Lindimore. “Nothing has been decided.”

Still, members of the school community on both sides of the issue believe that the school is moving forward with the plan. The school’s governing body voted to move forward with the changes outlined by school leaders, despite a parent survey which showed 109 of the school’s 296 families preferred no change to the schedule. And while a majority of staff supported the changes, Mattis said the divide between staff and a large segment of parents has not affected relationships within the school.

Some opponents are already looking for a new school, in anticipation of the schedule changes. A recent parent survey showed that as many as 13 families were likely to leave. Opponents say that number may be even higher after next year as few families want to go through the hassle of getting into a new school long after the district’s deadline for choosing a new school has passed.

“This says that this is a done deal,” said Jaret. “Oh and by the way, it’s too late to participate in the choice process.”

And Mattis has already put the wheels in motion to change one of the crucial parts of the school’s current schedule: busing. Parents whose students take the bus to school have worried about whether busing will be available and the late hours their students will spend on the bus.

“At this point, we are submitting our bell change request to transportation,” said Mattis.

Even so, she admits, nothing’s written in stone, yet. The bus schedule is one of several concerns — including feedback from district officials, who met with members of the planning committee last week– that could stall out her plan. “If they can’t change our bell time, we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do.”

As for the decision to move forward instead of waiting a year, as some parents would like, Mattis said she and her staff feel that wouldn’t be in the best interest of the school’s student body.

“Moving forward with plan b is in the interest of 100 percent of our students,” she said. “What I have heard strongly from a lot of parents as well as for a majority of staff is, ‘if we know this is what’s best for kids, why don’t we do this immediately?'”

As for the parents now looking for another school, she hopes they’ll reconsider.

“Our hope is that families are at Denison because of our strong Montessori program, which we are only going to strengthen,” said Mattis. “We are a community and we need to heal.”