Adding 5 school days sets off a tiff

School leaders say whoa!

Staff WriterJune 21, 2011 

— For all the clock-watching algebra students who know the precise moment the bell will ring, down to the position of the second hand, your wait may get a little longer.

School leaders across the state are balking at a provision in the recently adopted state budget that would require them to extend the school year by five more days. The number of required instruction hours would also increase 2.5 percent to 1,025 hours annually.

Legislators are touting the educational benefits of the change.

But school officials, including many across the Triangle, are complaining about the late notice, additional transportation costs and the reduction in training time for teachers.

Now they're trying to figure out ways to avoid the new regulations.

Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata, for instance, hopes the State Board of Education will allow the district to add only the extra instruction hours and not the extra school days.

Tata is expected to ask the Wake school board today to start schools five minutes earlier and end them five minutes later this fall as part of a waiver request to the state.

It would cost Wake an extra $100,000 a day to run the buses. School officials also say it would be hard to add the extra days to the year-round schools, whose new school year starts in three weeks.

"You can request a waiver if you are increasing student achievement through requesting a waiver," Tata said. "Saving a half-million dollars, I can plow that back into the schools and perhaps increase student achievement."

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board is also looking at whether it can add the 25 hours without adding the days.

School administrators in Durham and Johnston counties say they will also ask their school boards to request state waivers.

Previously, state law required North Carolina public school students to attend 180 days of classes with 1,000 hours of instruction each year.

Not a new notion

There has been talk for several years, locally and nationally, about extending the school year.

Supporters of a longer school year have pointed to tests showing U.S. students performing below students in other industrialized nations where the school year is more than 200 days.

As the $19.7 billion state budget was being developed, Republicans in the state Senate inserted a provision saying that the school year should now be 185 days with 1,025 hours of instruction.

"We're falling behind the rest of the world," said state Sen. Jerry W. Tillman, a Randolph County Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "We know we don't have enough seat time for students. We're adding five more days because we believe it will increase student achievement."

To help squeeze in the days, legislators eliminated the requirement that school districts set aside five teacher workdays, including four during the school year. Those days had been used for staff development and grading.

Legislators also set up a provision for school districts to request a waiver not to add the five days.

Tillman said he expects that the SBOE would be generous in granting waivers this year because of how soon the new school year will start. But he said he expects that waivers for future years would be hard to get.

Some have applauded the new state requirement.

"If they're giving us five additional days, we should take advantage of it," said Wake school board member John Tedesco.

But the response to the legislative change has been generally negative from school officials.

It's good to increase the amount of time students spend in classrooms, said Johnston County Superintendent Ed Croom.

"But you can't do it at the sake of taking workdays away from teachers," he said. "Something's gotta give."

Workdays needed, too

Wake school board member Kevin Hill said those workdays are important for helping teachers get the training they need to better educate students. "I'm all for having a longer school year, but this is not the right way," he said.

Tata, Wake's superintendent, said losing the workdays would force teachers to do more work on their own time.

Tillman argued that he'd rather have the five days used for teaching students than for workdays.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit education think tank, in March had proposed gradually expanding the school year to 190 days starting in 2012.

Jo Ann Norris, the group's president, said legislators should have delayed implementing the longer school year until the 2012-13 school year.

"Here again in North Carolina we're making a major reform without any planning time for the preparation we need to make it work," Norris said.

Staff writer Sarah Nagem contributed to this report. or 919-829-4534

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