Schedules get a makeover in many schools

By Ben Wieder

Stateline.org

Published: Friday, June 8 2012 11:52 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON (MCT) — Many states, driven by budget woes, a desire to boost tourism or a determination help low-performing schools, are contemplating changes in the amount of time their students spend in class.

Some California school districts may be forced to trim the school calendar to save money. In Alabama and Virginia, the issue is whether a longer summer vacation will bolster the tourism industry. Meanwhile, Michigan wants to add days to the school calendar to help its lowest-performing schools.

The issue in California, as it has been for several years, is money. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed an 8 percent cut in education spending that would take effect unless voters approve a November ballot initiative that includes an income tax hike on the state's wealthiest citizens and an increase in the sales tax. To cope with the 8 percent cut, school districts would be allowed to cut up to 15 days from the school calendar over the next two years.

The new reductions in the school year would come on top of previous cuts in the past several years. Schools were given the option to reduce the school day by five days starting in the fall of 2009, and then an additional 7 days during the last school year.

Opponents have criticized Brown for making education the biggest target for cuts if the ballot initiative fails. "He's holding the taxpayers hostage," says Jennifer Kerns, a spokeswoman for the California Republican Party.

But Jill Wynns, president of the California School Boards Association, says she understands the governor's reasoning. "The governor is forced to look to the services that people value most highly," Wynns says. "I think it's the only way to get it done."

Only about one third of schools cut the calendar in 2010, according to the California Department of Education, but Wynns thinks more will be forced to if the tax initiative, which her organization supports, doesn't pass. Wynns, who serves on the San Francisco school board, says her district plans to put its own trigger into next year's teacher contract. If the ballot initiative fails and Brown's education cuts take effect, the district could cut the school calendar by nine days. She says many other districts are planning for the worst. "They feel like it's the only responsible thing to do," she says.

The California school year is shrinking at a time when President Barack Obama and many others are touting the benefits of more instruction. The U.S. Department of Education has encouraged states and districts to extend learning time in low-performing schools through its No Child Left Behind waiver system and its multi-billion dollar School Improvement Grant program, among others.

In April, business leaders, public officials and the leaders of the nation's two largest teachers unions launched Time to Succeed, a coalition that will advocate for extended learning time. The leader of the effort is Chris Gabrieli, co-founder of the National Center on Time and Learning and founder of Massachusetts 2020, an organization that has helped schools in that state to expand the school day or year, often through private-public partnerships.

Michigan is already following the group's advice. Last year, the state created the Education Achievement System to turn around low performing schools, first in Detroit and later across the state. Under the plan, the Achievement System, a statewide district run by former Kansas City Superintendent John Covington, will directly oversee some of the schools, while others will be converted into charter schools. In the district, the school year will last for 210 days, 40 days longer than the Michigan minimum. Students also will get more hours of instruction each day.

MiUndrae Prince, the system's assistant chancellor for instructional support and educational accountability, says its leaders looked at the calendar in other states and around the world before settling on the 210-day calendar. Prince says that 170 days "was not enough time to make a difference in the academic achievement of our students."

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