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Area school districts considering earlier start

Area school districts considering earlier start
Kingsland Public School Superintendent John McDonald visits Jen Orth's AP chemistry class.

Several school districts in southeast Minnesota have begun holding public meetings regarding a proposed Flexible Learning Year that would allow schools to start before Labor Day.

Local educators believe that adding more instructional days to the calendar before statewide accountability tests in the spring will help improve student achievement.

According to the proposal, the school year would start about two weeks earlier and end about two weeks earlier than it does currently.

The group of school districts involved, called the Southeast Minnesota Learner Achievement Collaborative, plan to submit an Flexible Learning Year proposal to the Minnesota Department of Education that would allow them to start school about two weeks before Labor Day.

The application is for a three-year term, starting in the 2011-2012 school year.


Kingsland superintendent John McDonald is one of several area school superintendents leading the effort with the application committee.

He said a similar collaboration occurred among 25 schools in southwest Minnesota last year.

Those schools will find out if their plan worked this summer when they get MCA test results back.

"It'll be interesting to to look at the number of schools that didn't make the cut last year and see how they do this year," McDonald said.

School districts are required to hold three public meetings to inform district residents of the proposal. Chatfield has its last meeting at 6:15 p.m. today in the high school media center.

Chatfield, Superintendent Ed Harris heard comments from district residents in January and said 4-H and FFA members were concerned that the early start would interfere with their plans to show their projects at the Minnesota State Fair.

Schools in the west pledged to excuse students planning to attend the fair. Kingsland's McDonald, who is part of a work group creating the proposal, said only 1.5 percent of the roughly 16,000 students needed to be excused.

"They gave students their assignments in advance," McDonald said. "There were no big issues or complaints in that area."


Because it's only their first year, any news that comes from the western districts is "anecdotal," Harris said.

 "One of the things they've found most advantageous is being able to end the semester prior to Christmas. Parents seem to like that. Classes are done and teachers don't have to go back and reteach everything students forget over break."

Late last month, Harris said he was "on the fence" about the proposal.

"I have not personally committed to drive this idea forward or take it to the curb," Harris said. "I want to be very sensitive to the community and the staff here and see what they feel is in the district's best interest."

In addition to starting earlier, the schools would have common calendar days dedicated to professional development, share resources and strategies and data-driven instructional planning.

"The number one goal is to improve student achievement and it's meant to be a high performing vehicle for teachers to better their skills and collaborate with other teachers that are doing good work," Harris said.

Schools have had a hard time collaborating in the past because teacher work days don't always coincide with work days at neighboring districts.

The proposed common calendar would eliminate that problem.


McDonald said a staff development team made up of several people from different districts would be created.

"There may be times when all teachers would come together in one location and there may be times when they're grouped together virtually," McDonald said. "They can communicate and collaborate without getting in a car and driving somewhere."

Each district in this newest collaborative will establish their own goals for each of the three years.

They'll also be required to pay $10 per year per student to go toward a web-based learning management system, coordination and professional development.

School boards will vote on whether they want to be part of the collaborative at their March board meeting.

"Each district has to look at their student data, understand where they are right now and then make academic goals based on that data," McDonald said.

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