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School year calculated by the hour is proposed

Friday, February 11, 2011

DE, Legislature mull'inequities' in make-up days

Iowa school children and teachers may have to start counting the hours, not the days, until a school year ends, and that could cause concerning logistical problems for school districts, according to Cherokee Superintendent Dr. John Chalstrom.

Officials with the Iowa State Department of Education said last week they will propose legislation to change the way of calculating yearly classroom instruction.

The current system requires a minimum of 180 school days and, in Cherokee's case and many other Districts, that amounts to a school calendar with 90 days in each of two semesters quantifying the official school year.

The proposed change would be to a system based on a minimum of 1,170 hours of instruction by a certified teacher between July 1 and June 30 of each school year.

The hourly calculation would be based on 6.5 hours of daily instruction for 180 school days during a school calendar set by local school boards after public input from their constituents.

The hourly count reportedly would include time between class periods but it would not include lunch time, recess or parent-teacher conferences.

"It's all geared at preserving instructional time," explained Chalstrom. "I don't know what the outcome would be, but it would surely impact Iowa schools.

"My first thought is that individual school districts have individual local needs," continued Chalstrom. "As an example, simply due to geography and distribution of students, River Valley and South O'Brien would have more concerns (for students/parents/faculty) in bad weather than Cherokee would."

Chalstrom agreed that our recent spate of terrible winter weather the past few years in various parts of the State may be responsible for generating this proposed new DE strategy, but also cautioned that there are probably several factors at play.

"This will not be a radical change," said a DE spokesperson. "This really just gives schools more flexibility in making sure they give kids all of the instructional hours that they really have coming to them."

Carol Greta, the DE's legal counsel, said the issue comes up every year of bad winter weather where schools may dismiss classes due to a fast-moving storm in the forenoon, delay the start of the school day by two hours or dismiss students early in the afternoon, but the day is still counted as a 5.5-hour school day even though the actual hours of instruction were something less.

"The real value to students in this bill is that right now the law is written so that if schools have weather-related late starts or early dismissals, they don't have to make up the day at all, even if the early dismissal was at 9 o'clock in the morning and kids were only there for 30 minutes. Under the proposed floor, they would have to make up all of the instructional hours missed, whether it was weather-related or not, and so kids will really get the amount of instructional hours that they should be getting," she said.

"Kids may not like this bill," she added. "We fully recognize that, but you know what? Five to 10 years from now they can look back and say, yeah, I got all the education that was due to me."

Legislative reaction has been somewhat mixed, with several key education committee members taking a wait-and-see posture until they had a chance to read the department's proposed legislative change.

"It's an interesting concept," said Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "I think I'd have to see an hourly schedule next to a permanent day schedule just to see how they juxtapose. At first blush, it sounds like an interesting concept but the devil's always in the details. I think this would be one that we would have to take some time and think about the consequences."

Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, said he was interested in exploring the details, especially if it addresses his ongoing concern that most school districts are seeking and receiving waivers to start classes before the Sept. 1 threshold set by state law.

"If it's something that we can end the rubber stamp on the school start date, it could be a good thing," he said.

Ben Norman, a lobbyist for the School Administrators of Iowa, said there are a sizable number of administrators who would favor that approach over the current system, but he added he wants to see more details before commenting further.

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