In one school year, Lucas Johnson's reading scores went from below basic to proficient.
His mother, Taylor Johnson, attributes his improvement to the early release days Horace Mann Elementary has had for the past three years.
"The teachers were learning extra curriculum during those extra hours," she said. "I think they all (her five children) have benefited from it."
Beginning Wednesday, Sept. 12, the entire Rapid City Area Schools District will join Horace Mann — and the six other early-release pilot schools — in releasing students shortly after lunch on 27 Wednesdays throughout the school year.
In the hours after students are released, teachers will work in a professional learning community format, a structure in which educators work together to improve student learning.
Professional learning community, or PLC, has become a regular term at school board meetings and in administrative offices throughout the district. For many parents and community members, however, the term remains a mysterious concept.
It doesn't have to be, says Suzie Roth, director of staff development for the district.
"It's really a very logical process," she said. "But accomplishing this district-wide is a pretty major initiative."
Under the new PLC/early release model, teachers of specific subjects in each school building will gather on early-release Wednesdays. For instance, math teachers in a single building will collaborate with other math teachers, English teachers will meet with other English teachers and so on.
Grade level teachers in elementary schools will meet with other grade level teachers.
In subjects such as music, art and technology, there is just one teacher per school building. In order to give them the same collaborative experiences as their peers, those "encore" teachers will meet with other such teachers from other schools on early-release Wednesdays.
During the Wednesday afternoon meetings, teachers will talk about improving student learning, but in a systematic way, said Roth.
Roth said teachers will start by answering four "logical questions": 1) what do kids need to learn; 2) how do teachers know if students are learning it; 3) what can teachers do when students don't learn it and 4) when students reach proficient levels, what can teachers do to provide them with advanced activities or "enrichment."
Under the "what do kids need to learn" category, teachers will begin by creating goals.
The state, and much of the country, is in the process of implementing new common core standards, educational benchmarks that students must now meet in various subjects. Teachers will create common learning plans from classroom to classroom based on the new common core standards.
Next, under "How do teachers know if students are learning it," teachers will use the early release hours to create an evaluation system. Each school building will create its own assessments based on district-wide guidelines.
Third, teachers will create school-wide plans for when students don't learn, plans that can be implemented quickly, Roth said. Such plans could be as simple as putting struggling students into a single group for extra help or providing individual help for an individual student.
Finally, once students are proficient at a subject, they may need more challenges. Teachers will use early release to develop "enrichment" for those students.
All four of the questions "take time" to answer, Roth said. The early releases create that time. "This work can't be done in a vacuum," she said. "It's not a teacher's job to find the time after 3:30 … it is the district's responsibility to provide the time."
In the long run, though students may have fewer hours in the classroom, the teaching they get during the school day will be stronger and more effective because of the collaborative time, Roth said.
"It is worth a couple of less hours per week to actually make sure that the learning happens and that kids learn more," Roth said.
Danny Janklow was principal at Horace Mann during the past three years of early releases. He is now principal at North Middle School.
Janklow said the early releases allowed his teachers time to get a "snapshot" of how the students were doing and develop ways to help them.
And it worked, he said.
Under the early release model, the school saw significant improvements — raising its No Child Left Behind label of "a school in need of corrective action" to become a "school of distinction" in two years, Janklow said.
"A lot of it was the result of the teachers being able to collaborate," he said.
Kris Warwick, a math teacher leader at Horace Mann, is sold on the early release/PLC model.
"If we want teachers to be the best that they can be and the most knowledgeable, they need time to learn and they need time to learn together," she said.
Warwick said teachers become better in the classroom as a result.
As a parent, Johnson said she has seen the results firsthand. All of her children improved and her son Lucas, now at North Middle School, has continued to progress nicely.
Johnson acknowledges that releasing students early one day each week might be a burden to some working families, and she's sympathetic. But considering the successful nature of the model already shown at Horace Mann, she hopes families will give it a chance.
"When you weigh the benefits for the kids, it's better for the kids," she said. "I think it's worth it."