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School Daze II: How some districts keep 180 days a top priority

(Originally published Jan. 19, 2011)

In the Milan School District, students spend more days in class than their peers in most other districts for a simple reason: district leaders have made it an important priority. In the 2008-2009 school year, Milan was one of a handful of districts that actually exceeded – by a single day – the 180 days that were long the standard in Michigan.

“To me, days are what correlate to lesson plans, not minutes,” said Superintendent Bryan Girbach. “If you do the math, you can drop a day, add two or three minutes to each school day and still meet the hours requirement that the state of Michigan currently has in place. But adding three minutes doesn’t have the same effect as having another day of school at the end of the year.”

This year, Milan school leaders reluctantly trimmed two days from their calendar during contract negotiations in which teachers granted concessions on pay and benefits. That’s still more than most Michigan school districts, but below the number that was the tradition in Michigan for decades.

As districts face dwindling funds and an uncertain financial commitment from the state, school districts are struggling to maintain programs, balance their budgets and treat staff fairly. In Milan, teachers began paying 10 percent of their health care premiums and took a 2 percent pay cut.

“There are sometimes things that you have to give, and obviously for most employees, days off are one of the things that people look to and trade for in exchange for losing other benefits,” Girbach said.

But Doug Pratt, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said collective bargaining is a two-way street at the local level. He said school district negotiators bring up the shorter school year as often as union bargainers do.

Shrinkage Across State

Studies by the Center for Michigan over the past two years have shown that most school districts have reduced the number of days of instruction since 2003-04, when the state eliminated its 180-day requirement. Ironically, the school year is shrinking even as expectations for teachers and students are expanding. Teachers face new accountability with the federal Race to the Top initiative. Students have fewer days in class to master rigorous new state high school graduation requirements.

The Center’s analysis of 2008-09 school year show that the 180-day school year had quietly disappeared for most school districts — and often by much more than a day or two. Some 140 school districts and charter schools out of 755 scheduled 170 or fewer days, a full two weeks less than state law required until 2003.

That’s when the Legislature switched state standards from days (180) to hours (1,098), purportedly to allow school districts to reduce non-instructional costs such as food services and transportation, especially in northern rural districts where students travel long distances by bus. Some districts have done that, but others are reducing the school calendar in exchange for concessions.

While no one claims that the 180-day calendar is a panacea, some education advocates say falling below it is a step in the wrong direction. But returning to it will mean re-absorbing costs and/or re-negotiating contracts. Most say that the creation of a stable funding system should be part of any effort to reinstate or even expand the school year.

Michigan needs to provide more days of instruction to prepare students for the high-skill jobs that employers around the world are demanding, said William Mayes, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

“We are in a very competitive world right now. Our kids used to compete with the district next door, the county in Southeast Michigan and maybe Illinois and Indiana,” Mayes said. “Today, we compete with Stockholm, Sweden, Tokyo, Japan, and Shanghai, China. That’s the fact of life.”

Mayes noted that former Gov. John Engler was pushing for a longer school year in the 1990s before budget constraints fueled the shift to minutes.

Preserving the Calendar

Interviews with superintendents who have maintained the 180-day school year show they have not maintained the longer school year by happenstance. They have made it a priority.

Take Gull Lake, outside Kalamazoo. Superintendent Christopher Rundle says the district “zigged while everybody else zagged.”

He said the district benefited from conservative fiscal management, which positioned it well to expand programs when others were cutting. It instituted all-day, every-day kindergarten as well as a K-12 Spanish program. Gull Lake has also added after-school programs that include partnerships between the schools and community interests. And they opened their borders to schools-of-choice students from other districts, which has attracted 97 students, and the funding that comes with them.

“The all-day every day kindergarten program at first glance would cost money. But it was almost neutral because it was offset by the kids that came,” Rundle said. “Now if that continues to grow, it will take care of itself.”

Rundle said that reducing the 180-day calendar is nonnegotiable to Gull Lake administrators and school board members. “I guess it has been mentioned (in contract talks), but we’re just not going to do it. It’s 180 school days, and the teacher school days is 189.”

In the Leland School District in Northwest Michigan, the contract calls for 182 days of instruction.. Interim Superintendent Stowe, who has worked in the district as a teacher and principal, said the longer school year is consistent with the district’s focus on education and student achievement.

“The former administration and school boards in the past felt that 182 days is central to student achievement,” he said. Stowe said he believes the issue has come up in negotiations with the teachers union, “but it went absolutely no place.”

Differing Views

Others, however, say there are other issues that are more important than the number of days that students are in school.

In the Oxford Community Schools, the district reduced the number of days from 177 in 2007-08 to 173 in 2008-09. Superintendent William Skilling said the move was made to improve the quality of education, not to cut costs.

Skilling said school districts need to retool their programs and retrain their teachers to make students competitive in a rapidly changing world.

“To better prepare our kids for the global market that’s changing 24-7, we had to radically change curriculum instruction so that we are teaching for the world that exists versus the world that no longer exists,” he said. Skilling said that requires much more professional development.

The teachers aren’t working fewer days, he said, but they are spending more of them on professional development and common planning time.

Skilling said the district is “investing in innovation and working toward creating the model global school.” It is creating a international baccalaureate program for every school and has added a nine-year world language program as well as an engineering program.

The investment has paid dividends to the district financially by bringing new families to the community.

“The key is that that you have to invest in innovation, you have to close the global achievement gap. When you do this, parents will come,” he said. Last year, Oxford schools had 210 new students – 171 from school choice.

Skilling said he doesn’t consider the number of school days unimportant but believes it is overemphasized. “The bottom line is the most important aspect of good teaching and learning is hiring great teachers, constantly providing professional development, and coaching those teachers on an annual basis such that they continue to improve.”

In Grand Rapids, several schools run year-round. The district operated on a 174-day calendar in 2008-09. Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr. said the school year was in place before he became superintendent in 2006.

Taylor said he worked in Pennsylvania, which has a 180 day requirement, and doesn’t know what makes 180 days the magic number. “We need to be looking at is how we accommodate each student’s needs so the students who need more time get it,” he said. “Those students who don’t need as much time shouldn’t be forced into some arbitrary box of time just for compliance purposes.”

Taylor added that if the Legislature reinstates the 180-day requirement, schools are going to have to figure out a way to pay staff. “Where is that money going to come from in a state where education funding has been flat or declining,” he asked. “As we have this conversation, unless there is a discussion of how it is going to be paid for, what’s really going to come of it?”

If there is agreement on anything, it is that a stable funding system is needed if schools are going to work their way back toward 180 days or beyond.

The Legislature took the first step in 2009, after the Center’s first report on the shrinking school year. School districts are required to schedule at least 165 days this school year and next, and 170 beginning in 2012-13. And they are not allowed to offer fewer days than they did in 2009-10. (Some school districts closed early last year to give themselves more flexibility in meeting that requirement)

Pratt said the Michigan Education Association supports a longer school year to better prepare students, but teachers and other school staff will need to be paid more. “It’s a question of paying for it,” he said.

Mayes, of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, says the quick solution for the Legislature is to require 180 days again. But if that happens, he said, schools will need to cut in other areas — perhaps eliminating athletics, for instance.

A more practical approach, he said, would be to phase in the standard, over five or 10 years.

“At some point in time, the governor and the Legislature are going to have to deal with the issue of a stable revenue source for education,” Mayes said. “School districts can’t even begin to keep up with inflation, with their legacy costs, with their health care costs.”

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