School start date abused

In another example of  ignoring state law, the Des Moines Register’s Lee Rood writes

 

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Lee rood
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Amanda Taylor understands start dates for Iowa schools have long been controversial, but she doesn’t understand why.

State legislators determined long ago that school should begin the week of Sept. 1, and the mother of two thinks districts should have to follow that law.

“It sure would be nice not to have to shovel your sidewalk, too, but laws are there for a reason and we have to follow them,” she said.

Taylor’s question to The Des Moines Register Reader’s Watchdog: Why should the Waukee school district be allowed to start its 2014-15 school year on Aug. 13?

The school board is expected to finalize next school year’s calendar at its meeting tonight.

Some background: Most of Iowa’s 346 school districts seek waivers from the Iowa Department of Education under the existing law so they can start school earlier than Sept. 1; a typical start date is around Aug. 20 or 21. But some classrooms got going last fall as early as Aug. 6.

Districts have increasingly moved to start earlier in August so they can finish first semester by Christmas break while keeping the number of instruction days provided for in teacher contracts.

But there’s also been a push against the gradual creep toward an earlier calendar start. Many argue the state’s economy would benefit if students didn’t return to class until around Labor Day.

Last year, Gov. Terry Branstad entered the fray, urging tougher enforcement of the Sept. 1 law; Iowa State Fair and tourism officials petitioned the Department of Education with the same arguments.

But the Iowa State Board of Education shot down a proposal that would have forced stricter adherence to the state law. One of the new rules would have required districts seeking early-start waivers to have to make their case to the state’s Department of Education director.

Taylor, whose family lives in Urbandale, said she objects to earlier start dates because they cut into her family’s ideal vacation time and they mean her 12-year-old son starts football practice in August’s more extreme temperatures.

She’s written Waukee school board members and Superintendent David Wilkerson, but their recommendation is for next year’s calendar to mirror the 2013-14 academic year.

Wilkerson’s explanation to Taylor in a letter: The calendar needs to be in synch with area colleges, who educate teachers and students, not just in the fall, but in the spring and summer.

“The desire to finish the first semester prior to the break at Christmas comes directly from our high school staff,” he wrote. “We have been able to do that two of the past three years.”

Wilkerson said teachers are required to take summer courses at area colleges and universities, and many Waukee high school students are concurrently enrolled at Des Moines Area Community College to obtain college credit.

“High school students’ ability to earn college credits is a real issue as schools have been asked to increase rigor and opportunities for students,” Wilkerson stated. “Over 4,000 college credits are earned by our high school students annually. … That’s a large number and a huge financial savings for those students and parents.”

Wilkerson told Taylor the district conducted a survey three years ago, and parents were split almost 50-50 on whether to start early.

“I believe in looking to 2015-16 that the opportunity to start later and still align fairly well with the colleges and universities may be there,” he wrote, “as the calendar ‘adjusts’ every so many years.”

One area in which the state law could be improved: I’m told one reason so many districts are able to obtain waivers under existing law is that the law is loosely written. Districts seeking waivers are supposed to show that starting school the week of Sept. 1 would have a “significant negative educational impact,” but the law does not define what that would be.

There may also be more opportunity for compromise on the horizon. A bill passed by the Legislature last year gives districts the option of operating on an instructional calendar that has a minimum of 1,080 instruction hours instead of the current 180-day minimum.

Mike Cormack, policy liaison for the Department of Education, said the flexibility of an hourly schedule offers the possibility of starting school closer to Sept. 1 while still finishing the semester before the holiday break.

Districts are expected to report their calendar plans to the state in May or June, Cormack said. Each district must hold a public hearing prior to making a calendar decision.

Wilkerson said Waukee’s proposed 2014-15 calendar created by a panel of teachers is based on 1,080 hours for instruction. But that, he said, is because a glitch in the new law could make it almost impossible to adhere to the 180-day calendar requirement. The law, which may be amended during this legislative session, prohibits districts from counting days in which school is dismissed early because of bad weather as days of instruction.

“If we don’t get to count that day, I still have to pay teachers,” he said. The flaw in the law acts as an incentive for superintendents to shut down schools for entire days rather than dismiss a couple of hours early, he said.

No matter what the Waukee board decides to do in the future about its school calendar, chances are almost certain the board won’t please everyone.

But one thing is certain: Under the district’s current 194-day teacher contract, starting later in the year would mean cutting the length of spring break, as other districts in Iowa have done.

“And, let’s be real, parents in this district would probably run me out of Waukee if did that,” Wilkerson said.

Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Contact her atlrood@dmreg.com or 515-284-8549.

 

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