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Schools praise plan to add 20 extra days

When the Littleton Elementary School District in Avondale added 20 days to its school calendar last year in order to help struggling students and prevent the summer backslide, about 10 percent of districts’ teachers quit.

The teachers didn’t want to take on an extra four weeks of school for the same pay, and they decided to move to other districts, said Sandi Nielson, a Littleton board member and past president.

“When we voted as a school board to go to 200 days, 10 percent of our teachers walked that very next month basically. They didn’t want to sign their contracts, they didn’t want to listen,” Nielson said.

Despite the drama that her school district went through when it implemented a 200-day school year, Nielson testified before a House committee on Feb. 4, in support of a bill that would allow schools to increase their calendars to 200 days.

She said she was sure that under the bill, schools wouldn’t experience the loss of teachers that befell the Littleton district, but would still reap the benefits that the district saw in standardized test scores and student performance.

HB2488 would allow schools to go to a 200-day school year and would add a base funding pay increase of up to 8 percent. Currently, school districts, but not individual schools, are allowed to increase their calendar to 200 days, but only receive a 5 percent pay bump.

Nielson said that with the extra allocation, the Littleton district would have been able to offer its teachers enough compensation for their additional month of work.

The House Education Committee gave preliminary approval to the measure, and now it will move on to the Appropriations Committee for consideration before heading to the Rules Committee and full House for debate. Only one lawmaker on the nine-member Education Committee, Republican Rep. John Allen of Scottsdale, voted against the measure.

He later explained that he was concerned about the sanctity of the summer vacation, and that education starts at the home.

“No doubt it creates higher exam scores, but it also puts stresses on the family when they have a shorter vacation time than is traditional,” he said.

Republican Rep. Paul Boyer of Phoenix sponsored the measure in order to combat the summer slide where students forget during summer what they had learned during the school year. The bill would allow school districts’ individual struggling schools to make the decision to go to 200 days themselves, without having to get the entire school district to go along with the plan.

The bill is silent on how schools would change their calendars to add the 20 extra days, which Boyer said was intentional, to allow each school to find their own best practices.

School districts that have gone to the 200-day calendar have had great results, Boyer said.

The Balsz Elementary School District switched to a 200-day school year four years ago, and has seen dramatic increases in students’ test scores since then.

Jeff Smith, superintendent of Balsz School District, said that before the switch to the 200-day calendar, only

20 percent to 30 percent of Balsz students were meeting or exceeding expectations on state tests, but now, 60 percent to

80 percent of students in the district are demonstrating mastery of the subject matter.

English language reclassification rates have more than doubled in the district, and more students are learning the language faster and more thoroughly under the new calendar.

Three years ago, Crocket Elementary School in the district was ranked as one of the six consistently lowest achieving schools in the state, but today it is labeled a B school.

“Considering all of our successes, we owe a large part to a longer school year,” Smith said. “The customary summer break of two-and-a-half to three months is incredibly debilitating to student performance, especially for disadvantaged students and students who are learning a second language.”

Stacey Morley, director of policy development and government affairs for the Arizona Department of Education, said the 200-day plan is a great move for schools, and the research is clear that longer school years make better students.

But figuring out the funding model to allow individual schools to reap financial incentives for making the switch may be difficult, but possible, she said.

“I just want to make sure that we think this whole thing out, because if we do it, I want to do it successfully,” Morley said.

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