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KIPP charter schools take a weekly vow of e-mail abstinence

Staff at the four KIPP charter schools in New York City are experimenting with a new way to improve their practice: Every Wednesday, they toss their Blackberries and their Gmail and go e-mail free. KIPP calls the new tradition, part of a trend at businesses around the country, “Use of Time Wednesdays.”

KIPP is part of a group of elite charter schools that demand extra-long work hours of teachers along with other unique requests, like urging teachers to visit families at their homes after school hours. Supporters say the formula is responsible for the schools’ impressive test scores, but some worry it might not be sustainable as the teachers age and want to start their own families. Teachers at one KIPP school in Brooklyn, KIPP AMP, aired concerns about sustainability as part of their drive to organize into a union.

But KIPP’s co-founder and New York City superintendent, Dave Levin, said the e-mail abstinence days don’t have to do with improving what teachers call the “work/life balance.” He said the point is to enhance face time with students and between staff. “One of the key things to any organization being outstanding is everybody thinking really closely about how to use their time for the best benefit of the kids,” Levin said. “And, as you know, e-mail can take up a lot of time during the work day.”

The rule applies to teachers, who keep their famous cell phones on to stay in touch with parents and students, and to administrators, who have created automatic e-mail messages for themselves to explain why they won’t reply immediately. “KIPP NYC believes it is important to continuously evaluate what we do and how we do it,” an e-mail from one administrator reads. “To that end, each Wednesday is designated as ‘Use of Time Wednesday’, a day in which we focus on doing work away from e-mail.”

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