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Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter plans four-day week for teachers

Students will still attend five days, starting in September. The move is an effort to avoid burnout and allow teachers to be "servant leaders," as the school envisions.

Staff members at Sankofa Charter School include (from left) Tawana Williams, Katina Mackey, Toni Winston, and CEO Ayesha Imani. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, in an effort to create a healthier and more stable staff, will move its teachers and other instructional personnel to a four-day week in September.

The board of the 650-student, K-12 charter voted in February to make the change, said CEO Ayesha Imani.

Most districts and schools that have moved to a four-day week – and there aren’t many around the country – do it as a cost-saving move, and it affects both teachers and students. At Sankofa, however, students will still have five-day weeks, while teachers will work either Monday-Thursday or Tuesday-Friday.

Imani and the board envisioned the schedule change as revenue-neutral, with the hopes that teachers will avoid burnout and remain teaching at Sankofa. Salaries will not change.

“Increasingly, young teachers are not persisting,” said Imani. “They don’t tend to stay any place for five years.”

Imani, a 40-year veteran of Philadelphia education who spent 27 years with the District, said that the move is an effort to encourage teachers to pay more attention to their self-care. Teacher turnover is high at the school, especially among young teachers, as it is at most charter schools and in the District. Next year, the school is looking to hire 10 to 15 teachers.

“Even if we can’t attract new teachers, we want to take better care of the ones we have,” said Imani. “We are trying to build a sense of family and commitment and loyalty.”

School officials are working to redo the schedule, Imani said, and she expected that most of the students, especially those in high school, would not notice much of a change. For the lower grades, electives and some assessments will be moved to the day when their regular teacher is not there.

“We’re trying to do interesting things with staffing patterns, like creating situations with some smaller classes, team teaching, increasing special ed staff,” Imani said.

Currently, students have a half-day most Wednesdays. That half-day will be moved to Fridays. Instructional time will not be cut, she said, and will still meet state standards.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Katina Mackey, a reading specialist and 5th-grade team leader. “I think it’s a great opportunity for self-care to be built into our development as teachers.”

Often, she said, the focus on developing students – or scholars, as they are known at Sankofa – comes at the expense of teachers, “who can experience extreme burnout.”

Teachers “could easily work seven days a week,” said Tawana Williams, the director of student support services, because they spend time planning lessons and grading in addition to actual classroom time.

As an administrator, she will continue to work five days, but she believes the change will benefit teachers and the general well-being of the school. She said she would support the special education teachers by working with and assessing special education students on the fifth day.

“This could actually improve the efficiency of gathering our data,” she said. “And that can provide a faster feedback loop at the classroom level, which would lead us to improved practices.”

Imani first brought the idea to her board in January. She surveyed teachers and held a “town hall” with staff to gather ideas before presenting it to the board again in February, when it was approved. She said they would try the new schedule for a year and return to the traditional schedule if it doesn’t work.

Mackey is in her seventh year at the school, which was founded in 2010, and her daughter is in 3rd grade there.

“This is sacred work,” she said. “We do give our all and feel like servant leaders. We want excellence for our children, but we also need some ‘me’ time.”

She said she still expects to take work home at night, but the extra weekday off feels like a gift.

“We can do errands, or plan doctors’ appointments, or just relax,” she said. “I’ve watched qualified teachers burn out early because of the load we bear. We need that time to reset, renew, and regroup.”

Fourth-grade teacher Toni Winston has been at Sankofa since it opened – her entire teaching career. “One of the things the four-day week is affording us is the opportunity to attract more experienced teachers,” she said, crucial for helping the older students prepare for college.

She said her second class of 4th graders are now seniors, “and I can’t describe what it’s like to have students keep the connection going.”

For herself, the extra day means “I can catch up [at school] if I want to; I can work from home if I want to.” She thinks that many teachers will come to school to work with students in small groups or catch up on assessments. “I think it’s a wonderful thing,” she said.

Sankofa was founded in Frankford and is now located in Kensington, at Kensington Avenue and Cumberland Street. The school is next to the El, in the building that once was Kelly’s Korner, a local discount department store. Most of the students enrolled still come from the Frankford area, Imani said.

It is organized as a “Freedom School,” a model developed as part of the civil rights movement to propel African Americans to social, political and economic equality. It has an Afrocentric focus and a culture of “servant leadership,” in which students, teachers, and administrators come together as family, and social justice is a primary focus. Some students go on field trips, such as a civil rights tour of key places in the American South; recently, a group of students returned from a trip to Gambia in West Africa.

But the social justice mission is larger than just that, Imani said. Moving to Kensington “has really opened our eyes” to how widening inequality affects more than just black people. When a parent started a food pantry at the school, most of the people who came for food were white.

“We had to widen our lens, see oppression differently, and we increasingly adopted more of a human rights agenda than before,” she said.

The school community also had to confront some inherent biases around LGBTQ rights. Winston said that if the school is about freedom, it also had to be about the freedom of LGBTQ people to be who they are.

“When we interview people about jobs, we ask them, ‘What is your personal transformation agenda?'” said Imani. “You can’t just come here on a mission to help someone else. You have to challenge the system and challenge yourself.

“It’s part movement, part ministry. It can’t be just a job.”

Moving to a four-day schedule “is not how to work less, but how to work best,” she said. “We talk about ‘sustaining the soul.’ We have to find how we can sustain ourselves for the long haul.”

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