Schools shake up schedules
Administrators debate calendar changes before next school year
Today was supposed to be the last day of class for Cedar Rapids Community School District students. Instead, after a harsh winter that resulted in six canceled school days, students will be in their classrooms through next Thursday, June 12.
On June 9, following an open hearing on the issue, administrators will recommend that members of the district’s school board approve measuring the 2014-2015 school year in hours as opposed to by days — a system that could prevent bad weather from making another school year stretch into mid-June.
“It would allow us to provide instruction close to the time instruction was lost. For example, if we miss a day in February, we start to add those minutes in the same trimester,” said Karla Ries, the district’s director of instructional services. “That, I think, is a better piece for kids.”
As of July 1, 2014, a change to Iowa Code will allow officials in the state’s school districts to choose whether to measure their academic years in hours or days. A tweak to the law has increased the requirement of hours for a full instructional day to six hours from the previous 5.5, setting the threshold for a complete academic year at 1,080 hours or 180 days.
Once declared — Iowa Department of Education officials are collecting that information throughout June — administrators will not be able to change which system the district operates under until creating a calendar for the next academic year.
The department won’t have the final breakdown of which districts have selected hours and which have opted for days until the end of the month.
But Amy Williamson, the department’s chief of the bureau of school improvement, said she’s heard from educators in both camps. Some have praised the increased breathing room that counting by hours allows, she said.
That system might reduce headaches for department employees, whose hands were tied earlier this year when administrators sought alternatives to adding days onto the end of the school year.
“I think snow day makeups are one of the favorable things about the hours option,” Williamson said. “What schools can do is just that, add instructional time onto the end of school days or the beginning of the school day, so you’re not adding whole days onto the end of the school year. ... I do anticipate that requests (to the department) with making up snow days will decrease.”
Not all Corridor districts are ready to make that change. The Marion Independent and College Community school districts will move to hours in 2014-2015, as will the Clear Creek Amana Community School District.
The Linn-Mar and Iowa City community school districts, however, will both stay with days.
Dirk Halupnik, Linn-Mar’s executive director of instructional services, said “strong arguments” exist on both sides of the issue but using the hours model could open the door to sacrificing class time.
“At the elementary level, we have 1,131 hours, which is well above the 1,080. So if we had a few snow days — and you can insert whatever number you want — technically by the law we cannot make up those days at all and still be above the minimum of 1,080. In the end the students would be the ones who suffer because they would not get that instructional time,” he said.
“If we didn’t have school that day in the days model, we would still have to make up those days and protect that instructional time.”
Halupnik did not rule out the possibility of Linn-Mar eventually changing to hours for a future school year.
“I think it will be an annual discussion,” he said. “I think it will spur creativity in calendar creation and I think it’s a positive thing.”
Chace Ramey, chief human resources and community affairs officer for the Iowa City schools, said determining whether to shift to that will be part of a broader conversation about the district’s calendar development.
“I think that the hours and minutes (model) does provide more flexibility to school districts, but the way the days calendar is structured has served the district well,” he said, though he mentioned that the hours model could actually provide for increased instructional time. “With this change it gives us options. We’re really starting to weigh those factors.”
Williamson said that some of the administrators to whom she’d spoken who were exploring staying with the days measurement have expressed a desire to keep language consistent between the calendar and teacher contracts, which often use days. Halupnik listed that as one reason for Linn-Mar’s decision.
Ries said that district staff are still in the process of tracking how many hours will be included in the 2014-2015 calendar, which board members approved in September 2013. But she is “100 percent” certain that it will exceed the requirement.
Solon Community School District Superintendent Sam Miller said its 2014-2015 calendar will include 1,108 hours, 28 more than required despite increasing the amount of staff professional development time. That is one reason why using that measurement appealed to him, he added.
“That way, if we have a late start, an early out or a team makes it to state and we decide to dismiss early, it’s really not going to impact our school calendar,” he said.
The district will use hours for reporting to the state but will continue to measure the year in days for employment agreements.
Solon students got out of school on June 3 despite enduring a winter of several weather-related cancellations and late starts. Miller said that moving to the hours system could play a role in future decisions about how to handle severe weather, but student safety will remain the top priority.
“If we have a day that may be a late start or a cancellation, we may lean toward a cancellation. If you continue to have late starts or early outs, you can do that. ... You could reach a point where you’re coming close to the minimum and that’s problematic, but again, I’m talking about a very extreme example,” Miller said.
“If we do have several delays or early outs, we will have to take a hard look at, ‘Do we have a delay or cancel the whole day and get a full (makeup) day of instruction?’”