Academic year short for third of schools

Academic year short for third of schools

June 5th, 2011 by Adam Crisp in News

Shorter school year

In Tennessee, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman approved all of the requests from 42 of the state's 136 school districts this year to shorten their school calendars because of natural disasters. The waivers varied from one to seven days and in Southeast Tennessee included:

• Bradley County, seven days

• Cleveland City Schools, two days

• Hamilton County, two days

• Sequatchie County, two days

• Rhea County, two days

• Bledsoe County, two days

• Grundy County, one day

In Georgia, the Department of Education allows school districts to use four emergency days for school closings below the 180-day state minimum for the year. Additionally, six school districts were granted waivers to operate fewer than 176 days, including:

• Catoosa County, four days

• Walker County, three days

• Dade County, four days

Sources: Tennessee Department of Education, Georgia Department of Education

Meeting the standard

In Hamilton County, the school system met the state's overall requirement for 180 days of annual instruction with fewer days by extending the school day, counting partial days and getting a state waiver from minimum standards:

• Thirteen days were credited below the 180-day minimum by adding 30 minutes to the school day, expanding the typical school day to seven hours from the state minimum of 6.5 hours.

• Two additional days lost because of bad weather were waived from the state standard by the Tennessee Department of Education after the school board requested the waiver because of tornado damage in April.

• Two days were counted as instructional days when students registered for classes on Aug. 4, 2010, and when students picked up report cards on May 24. There was no actual classroom instruction on either day.

• Four days were scheduled half-days for parent-teacher conferences and for professional development days.

• Four or more days were shortened by delayed openings or early dismissals because of bad weather, tornado cleanup, school building problems or special events at individual schools. The state allows school districts to count any day as an instructional day when the school is open at least 3.5 hours.

Sources: Hamilton County School System calendar for 2010-11, Tennessee Department of Education

Tennessee public schools may need to lengthen their school year in the future to help students from the Volunteer State compete in a global market where most students study longer each year, Gov. Bill Haslam said.

But meanwhile, Haslam said more than a third of the state's school systems hard hit by snowstorms, flooding or tornadoes were granted waivers from minimum calendar requirements in the past year.

"Due to the storms this year and due to the budget, I think it was going to be hard to go back and force the folks there [to meet the state standard]," Haslam said in a recent interview as the school year ended across Tennessee. "I think you're looking at a unique situation this year with all of the storms and the flooding."

Many districts in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia had at least a week less of school in the past year than they did a year ago.

In Hamilton County, for instance, most schools operated complete seven-hour instructional days only 155 days in the school year that ended May 24 - nine days less than the previous year.

Schools in Hamilton County were open 165 days in the past year, but that included two weeks of days cut short for teacher-parent conferences, professional development, registration and report card pickups and weather-related delays or early dismissals.

Haslam said schools need to be going in the other direction to keep pace with some foreign countries that require as many as 50 more days of classroom instruction a year.

"If you look at the success of education in other countries or in charter school environments, a lot of it is tied to just going to school longer," Haslam said. "I know a lot of kids and some parents may not want to hear that, but if we're going to compete we can't be playing half a schedule."

Shorter calendar in U.S.

According to the National Center on Time & Learning, a Boston research group that advocates a longer school year, China, Japan, Korea and a half-dozen other countries have minimum school years longer than 200 days a year. The United States average school year ranked 39th among the world's 49 biggest countries and in the past year many Tennessee and Georgia schools had shorter school calendars than the U.S. average of just under 180 days.

Haslam said he hopes to look at Tennessee's education system over the summer, though he said changing the calendar and the way teachers are paid is "changing the very fabric of education, and we won't do any such changes lightly."

In a recent meeting with editors at The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the state should consider adding more time to the school calendar, although his department has no specific recommendations as yet.

"We have a calendar in Tennessee not based on the modern world," he said.

States OK shorter schedule

Nonetheless, Huffman's office granted 42 waivers to school districts this year to allow the school systems to complete their school year without meeting the state standard for 180 days of instruction averaging 6.5 hours a day.

In Georgia, the state allows individual school districts to decide to drop four days below the state's 180-day school calendar for emergency reasons. A half-dozen school districts, including Catoosa, Walker and Dade, still had to get additional waivers to cut their school years even shorter after storms damaged schools in their districts.

In Hamilton County, the school system met state standards by operating most days for an extra 30 minutes beyond the state minimum school day of 6.5 hours. That allowed the school system to make up 13 days lost for bad weather this year. When repeated snowstorms and tornadoes ripped through the region in the past year, the state granted a waiver to allow the school system to give up another two days from its calendar rather than make up the lost school days.

"It would be very difficult and create a lot of confusion to add more time on at the end of the school year after many students have already graduated," said Danielle Clark, director of communications for Hamilton County Schools.

Hamilton County school administrators say they complied with the state guidelines and only asked for a waiver after students missed two days because of the April 27 tornadoes.

"The power was out and conditions just weren't good enough to report to class," said Kirk Kelly, Hamilton County Schools' director of accountability and testing.

The school board view

Hamilton County school board Chairman Jeffrey Wilson said the lost days from this year's storms couldn't be avoided. But over time, Wilson said Tennessee schools need to look at longer school calendars to stay competitive with foreign schools.

"I think we need to find a way to make the school year longer, but there are a lot of challenges and I don't know how we as a community will get there in the near future," he said.

Citing China's 12-hour, year-round school days, Hamilton County school board member Linda Mosley said U.S. schools must look at their schedules as a means to stay competitive.

"We know that the more time [students] spend away from school, the more they forget," Mosley said. "A longer schedule is something that would take a lot of planning and debate and community buy-in, but it would benefit our students."

Starting in 2004, Hamilton County attempted a year-round schedule at Hardy Elementary School. The seven-year experiment ended this year after school officials said parents and teachers lost enthusiasm.

Mosley said that if Hamilton County tries such a plan again, it needs to be a widespread effort.

"I think if we were to do it, we should spread it over a whole district," said Mosley, adding that such an effort would take years of planning and gradual implementation.

But with the typical American student in class less than half the year, Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time & Learning, said U.S. schools need to lengthen their school year.

"Our current school schedule is based on the 19th-century agrarian calendar of 180, six-hour days, which does not offer the time necessary to prepare children for today's competitive world," she said.

As the state looks to reshape education, all options should be on the table, Haslam said.

"I think what we have to do with education is to take a whole, fresh new look at everything, from how long students go to school to how do we compensate teachers to make sure that we are rewarding them," he said.

"We spent a lot of time in this session talking about teacher tenure and collective bargaining. But the next piece that we need to discuss if we are really going to have a great education system is how do we attract and keep the very best people in education."