Iowa education task force pushes for calendar innovation

Group considering uniform start date, length of school day, measuring instructional time

Published: October 15 2012 | 5:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 1:58 am in

Tucked in the southeast corner of Iowa, Wayland is a small city not exactly known for its trendsetting. Yet the area's school district may be at the forefront of what Mike Cormack hopes will become an attractive option for educational systems throughout the state.

Officials at the Iowa Department of Education, where Cormack serves as a policy liaison, recently approved the WACO Community School District's proposal to begin offering a four-day instructional week starting with the 2013-14 school year. Class periods would grow to an hour in length, up from the current 42 minutes, on Mondays through Thursdays.

"We can enhance our instruction, we can get really focused on the Common Core and build students' skills in an achievable way," said Tom Ferguson, an English teacher at WACO Junior/Senior High School and chairman of the district's innovative calendar committee. "This is a great way to service all kids and give them opportunities that are beneficial for them."

The schedule, which still needs school board approval before administrators can move forward, also includes three optional one-hour blocks for students to work on remediation and enrichment, including career readiness and community service, until 11:30 a.m. on Fridays.

"The Waco situation is much more of a starting point than a station thats going to tell the tale for every district in the state of Iowa," said Cormack, lead member of the department's Instructional Time Task Force.

Instructional Time Task Force

The 19-member group, formed as part of last year's Senate File 2284 education reform legislation, met four times from July through October to study and devise recommendations on a uniform school year start date for state districts, the length of the instructional day and year and whether class time should be measured in days or hours.

Today (Monday) is the deadline for task force members to reveal their formal recommendations and pilot proposal to the state Board of Education, Gov. Terry Branstad and the state legislature. A draft, the template for the final document, includes a recommendation that instructional time be shifted from the required 180 days to a minimum of 1,080 hours, the equivalent of 180 six-hour school days. The document says that counting hours instead of days will "allow for more effective use of instructional time."

At times, school districts will add short instructional days at the end of the year in order to meet that 180-day requirement, but those days may include assemblies and award ceremonies instead of what Cormack called "quality instruction."As long as students are present for at least 5.5 hours, the state counts that as a full school day. Districts rely on that provision for situations such as early dismissals due to heat or professional development.

I think the idea behind the hours is the belief that instead of trying to meet a state standard in that manner, that would provide flexibility throughout the year," Cormack said. "Perhaps adding a couple days in March might be more beneficial than adding the type of days I just described.

Innovative calendars

The department approved 72 innovative calendar waiver requests from public and private schools and school districts to deviate from the 180-day requirement for 2012-13, including Linn-Mar, College Community and local Archdiocese of Dubuque buildings. Often districts want to subtract one or two full instructional days for staff development. The majority of these calendar requests aren't reinventing education, however, according to the view of Amy Williamson, the department's bureau chief for the Bureau of School Improvement.

"We rarely get an innovative calendar request that significantly reduces the number of days," she said. "Innovation is hard. Its rare someone puts forth the time and effort to do something truly innovative."

Taylor Elementary School in Cedar Rapids has operated on an innovative calendar for almost 20 years. Principal Brian Christoffersen prefers to call it a modified calendar, but it is similar to a year-round schedule, with classes starting in the end of July and ending in late May with longer breaks spread throughout the year. In the principal's estimation, the alternative schedule is not more difficult to offer than a traditional one. In fact, to him it's an asset.

"Those breaks are so powerful," Christoffersen said.

This allows Taylor students to have the stability of the school construct throughout the year and, in addition, spend less time on remediation when classes resume each year.

During the off times throughout the school year, students can participate in enrichment activities through the school.

"It can kind of build experiences and background knowledge that can help kids feel more connected to school," the principal said, noting his belief that those programs can lead to academic growth.

The recommendation

The draft of the task force's recommendation suggests that the state provide incentive funding for districts opting to try innovative calendars and continued financial support if they demonstrate student achievement. Cormack offered public-private partnerships and repurposing existing dollars as ways to provide that funding.

The document also includes ideas about staggered schedules, such as 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for longer instructional days. The text directs districts to review best practices and look at other states for cues on how to truly innovate when it comes to redesigning a school year.

"[We're] not saying that every school and every student should have a longer day or longer year," Cormack said, "but there are promising results from schools that have gone into this area and the state should encourage that."

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