Longer school days are coming

Published on Wed, Jan 29, 2014 by Nathan Dalla Santa

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Blaine students might spend more time in the classroom beginning next school year if the Washington state legislature moves ahead with its plan to increase required instructional hours.

Under ESHB 2261, which passed Washington state legislature in 2009, standards for minimum instruction hours in Washington schools increased. However, legislation later passed in 2011 amended the bill, moving back the implementation date to the 2014–2015 school year.

Currently, state law mandates that students receive an average of 1,000 instructional hours per year from first through 12th grade. 

Historically, the Blaine school district has exceeded that minimum by 28 hours by giving first through fifth grade students a lighter load of 940 hours while scheduling sixth through 12th grade students a total of 1,088 hours per year.

The new statute would increase those instructional hour requirements and eliminate the district’s ability to average school hours in order to meet the goal. 

The changes mean students in first through fifth grade would receive a minimum of 1,000 hours of instruction per school year and sixth through 12th grade students would receive 1,080 annual hours. 

Though 1,080 hours is less than the upper grades’ current load, the district would need to add around 30 additional classroom hours to allow a buffer for late starts, early dismissals and inclement weather days.

Broken down, this means first through fifth graders would spend 45 additional minutes in school per day and sixth through 12th graders would find themselves in their classrooms an additional 10 minutes per day to meet the new requirements and provide a buffer.

Washington legislators may still postpone or cancel the decision, said Blaine school district superintendent Ron Spanjer, but the school board is taking steps to prepare for the possibility of a longer school day. Spanjer anticipates a final decision by mid-March, he said.

“Clearly, we think it’s a good thing for students to spend more time in the classroom, but there are problems that need to be addressed,” Spanjer said.

While the administration is on board, the proposed changes would create a number of other issues. Additional hours spent at school require additional staff time and money; a problem for an already cash-strapped system.

“What could possibly be wrong with giving kids a few more minutes of education every day?” board member Susan Holmes asked during the January 27 school board meeting. “It is a good thing, but we have needs that surround it and they’re not being funded.”

Although the students’ required classroom time would increase, teachers’ work hours would not, so the additional hours of instructional time would need to come out of teachers’ collaborative planning hours. As a result, more planning would take place during the school day.

Elementary teacher Glenn Tuski admits the loss of planning time with other teachers is a downside to the proposal, but he believes the cost is worth it because of the increase in student-contact time the bill allows.

“We’re all ready for it,” Tuski said. “With the new challenges that come with Common Core requirements, we need more hands-on time with the students.”

In order to afford teachers more planning time throughout the day, the school district would need to hire two additional specialist teachers, such as librarians or music teachers, to lead students while teachers are planning.

“No one is paying attention to how much this will cost,” Spanjer said at a school board meeting this month. “We can’t increase the student day without increasing staff time with it.”

The state will be providing extra money to school districts, but it will only cover enough to pay the salaries of two-and-a-half teachers, which will not cover additional costs, such as extended meal times, Spanjer said.

Logistics pose an additional problem for the district. School buses require at least 50 minutes of turnaround time between taking primary and secondary students to school in the morning, which the current system allows for. However, if the elementary school were to start earlier, it would shorten that 50-minute window, leaving buses without the time to pick up all the students. The only viable option, other than buying more buses, is to establish a common start and stop time for all grades in the district, Spanjer said.

“It would have to be a long day for all students, unless we can get more buses,” Spanjer said. “The buses control the schedule.”

Though a specific date has not yet been determined, the school board plans to hold a public forum in April to listen to the community’s concerns and input about the new policy and its implementation.