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School year proposal piques local interest

By Staff | Oct 3, 2009

Debate on extending the school year continues this week after President Barack Obama suggested that lengthening the time students are in class could improve academic achievement.
Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Ann Duncan said the U.S. needs to catch up with other countries whose students go to school longer and have better scores. In an interview with the Associated Press, Duncan said that students in other countries are going to school 30 percent longer than in the United States.
“I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas,” said Obama in press accounts. “But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.”
Traditional school calendars where students have summers off are based on an agrarian economy where children were needed home for the harvest months. Because a majority of Americans aren’t operating on this type of schedule any longer, administration officials are suggesting the school year be extended.
Funding issues forced the Lee County School District to adopt a four-by-four block schedule this year rather than having seven periods a day, which doubles the amount of class time per subject. Dismissal times, on the other hand, are the same.
Lee County School Board member Robert Chilmonik said he would support lengthening the school year as long as the district is funded to operate longer.
“We have an enormous amount of work to do to get our students up to an acceptable reading level,” said Chilmonik. “We need more time with the students to work with them.”
Only 36 percent of Lee County 10th grade students passed the FCAT Reading exam this year.
“A lot of times they go off to summer vacation, have a good time, and don’t retain as much as we’d like them to,” said Chilmonik.
If the academic year is extended, it means school districts would need more funding for salaries, facilities management and other day-to-day expenses.
For example, the district’s operating fund is worth $708 million, according to the 2009-2010 final budget, which amounts to approximately $3 million per day to keep it up and running. The capital fund, worth $416.8 million, also spends millions of dollars to construct, maintain or repair district buildings.
Basic logic would say that a longer school year requires more money to keep it open.
“If we want it, we just need the operational money to do it,” said Chilmonik. “As long as they fund it I’m for it.”
Steve Teuber, vice-chairman of the Lee County School Board, said he is supportive of increased educational opportunities, but wants to ensure that any plans to extend school years would take into account all of the unintended consequences.
“You need to understand all of the unintended consequences,” he said. “How does that impact state scoring, college admissions or all of those things we are currently doing with the calendar?”
University starting times are typically in the fall, and therefore would have to be changed to coincide with a longer school year. Otherwise, high school classes would overlap with a student beginning college.
Teuber pointed out that any past changes to the school calendar have gone through rigorous vetting processes such as the granting of Jewish holidays, for example. The committee first began giving these holidays off a few years earlier, but changing the calendar for a handful of days was no easy process.
He also questioned how the federal government would be able to impose a change in something ultimately ruled by state and local governments.
Some charter schools across the country have longer schools days or years, according to the AP report, but those charter schools in the Lee County have the same calendar and dismissal time as the public ones.
Massachusetts has unveiled a Expanded Learning Time Initiative where 300 hours of instructional time were added per year and education officials have reported gains in students who are said to be proficient in reading and math.