Originally published March 11, 2022 by the Austin American-Statesman.
By Maria Mendez
Seeking more time for teacher planning and exercise for students, Austin school leaders are planning to change the schedule for physical education, art and music classes in elementary schools next year.
Currently, elementary students alternate between physical education, art and music every school day. That adds up to three 45-minute class periods in each subject every two weeks.
Under a new district plan, students would receive daily 45-minute PE classes, in addition to recess, and core teachers would get 6½ planning hours per week. Depending on changes at each campus, students could also attend art and music classes less frequently but have access to other electives, according to district leaders.
The proposal aims to give elementary teachers more planning time during the school day while ensuring students receive state-required daily physical activity, district spokesman Jason Stanford said.
Texas requires students to get 30 minutes of "vigorous daily physical activity" through PE classes or "structured activity" during recess. If the daily requirement poses a challenge, a school district must ensure that students engage in physical activity for at least 135 minutes each school week.
District leaders said they don't want to cut into students' recess or task teachers with leading workouts during core classes.
Some parents and teachers voiced concerns that the plan could leave students with less exposure to art and music, particularly among families who can't afford access outside of school.
"Music and art offers things to the educated child that math, science, reading do not," Marjorie Yankeelov, a lecturer in music and human learning at UT, told the Austin school board during Thursday's meeting. "There's a form of expression there, especially for young children who don't have the words to put their feelings into writing. That has to be developed, and it's already too little time to sort of cut that time. It's just heartbreaking for me as a parent."
Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde told the school board the district is committed to ensuring opportunities for students to engage in music and art.
"We are committed and recommitted to ensuring our students have the same amount of time in music and in art," she said.
Stanford told the American-Statesman the new plan would require schools to give students at least 180 minutes of art and music classes over three weeks and provide additional "enrichment opportunities."
The exact schedule changes will be up to each campus principal, he said. Principals will engage with their campuses this month to develop an action plan and finalize a schedule by April 29, according to a timeline presented to the school board.
Principals at Langford and Overton elementary schools plan to hold hourlong art and music classes once a week and offer a third activity such as bicycle, pottery or drama clubs on Fridays, according to a district newsletter sent to staff.
At Highland Park Elementary, students will get a three-day rotation in music, art, and another program, which will allow the school to give students the same amount of time in art and music while giving teachers up to 90 minutes of planning time once or twice a week, according to the district newsletter.
The plan may require the district to hire more teachers for special subjects, particularly for PE, Stanford said.
District leaders previously said the plan could also double PE class sizes up to 45 students per teacher — the maximum allowed by state law — which some teachers and parents said could cram gyms and stress PE teachers.
In a post last month, district leaders said they would work to identify "all possible spaces available" for PE and would provide PE teachers with "opportunities to learn about best teaching practices and classroom management for physical education."
But on Thursday, Elizalde said district leaders were still looking at the student to teacher ratio.
During the Thursday board meeting, a few principals said they supported the plan because it gave elementary teachers more time to review student progress and plan lessons in groups.
"A productive and impactful day of teaching requires substantial planning time to choose effective strategies, design lessons, prepare materials and collaborate with others," said Williams Elementary School Principal Natalie Cardona-Villanueva. "Planning time is critical to teachers' job satisfaction and positively affects their ability to help our students reach their highest potential. ... This extra time is critical for student success."
Elementary teachers currently get less planning time than secondary teachers, and they must also work on lesson plans at the end of the school day, Stanford said.
Only 40% of students in third grade met their grade level in math, according to recent district tests measuring student progress, and 44% of third-graders were reading at grade level.
The district also reported a 37% gap in math and a 39% gap in reading when looking at grade-level performance between poor students and those who are not economically disadvantaged.