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Meeting draws concerns about flexible learning year

WORTHINGTON -- Monday night's District 518 public forum on the proposed flexible learning year drew more concerns than support, but lacked the concern about the short timeline for implementation expressed at last year's meetings on the same subject.

School board members, teachers and a handful of parents attended the meeting at the high school, the first of two devoted to discussing the proposed schedule change with the public. District 518 is pursuing a flexible learning year (FLY) application that would move the start of the school year earlier, likely establishing a calendar that would begin Aug. 23 and end May 24, 2011.

Following a short presentation by Superintendent John Landgaard on the subject, attendees expressed criticism of the schedule, saying the high school's block scheduling could mean some students will pass months between their last math or English class and the tests. They also questioned why "high-stakes tests" could not be moved to a later time in lieu of adding instructional days before the exams.

"They're not excited about moving the testing date, the turnaround of test data already takes so long," said Landgaard, referring to the Minnesota Department of Education, which sets the exam dates.

"Have there been many districts that have done this lately in Minnesota?" asked Tim Scholtes.

A few have pursued the FLY for other reasons -- a year-round school calendar, for example -- but none have a pre-Labor Day start, Landgaard said.

"I've got nieces and nephews in places where they traditionally don't do well on tests and they all start in the middle of August. Should we start earlier?" Sholtes responded.

Kindergarten teacher Melissa Jensen, who has three children in the district, questioned whether starting classes earlier -- during what the district says are peak motivation days for students -- would really improve academic performance.

"I know I have heard lots of grumbles," Jensen said. "I'm wondering if students and teachers will be motivated, or will it have the opposite effect? Change is hard; they're not eager to start early or leave their summer early."

Landgaard said the students he has spoken with don't take issue with the change.

Several said many benefits of the proposal could be achieved without changing the calendar, and Landgaard agreed.

"There are pieces of this application that we can do whether we start in August or not," he said.

Among the proposed benefits are improved staff development opportunities.

"We're looking at bringing in quality trainers and people who can provide professional development in areas that our staff tell us they want training in," Landgaard added.

However, the districts involved hope a common calendar with an earlier start date will also raise all students' test scores. Some were skeptical the addition of nine instructional days would really make a difference, and others asked about students who are already passing the state and federal exams each spring.

"The benefit isn't just about the low-performing students because if high performing students score better on those tests, it brings up the overall score," Landgaard said. "It's about every kid."

Sally Darling, an eighth-grade teacher at the middle school, questioned how an earlier start date would jibe with the middle school addition and renovation project, scheduled to be completed the first week of August.

"There's not a lot of time to work things out; that's a huge concern," Darling said, "We want to make this a good transition for kids ... how do you use that (teaching) time well for kids with chaos all around you?"

Jodi Hanson, the president of Education Minnesota Worthington, the local teacher's union, said the union's executive board could not support the FLY proposal at this time because it didn't feel there was enough research to show "that starting school this many days early without adding more time overall is going to benefit our students."

District 518 is one of nearly 30 school districts in southwest Minnesota pursing a flexible learning year calendar. State law currently mandates that public schools have a post-Labor Day start date. The only option for school districts to start any earlier is to apply for a flexible learning year, which allows each district to set its own calendar.

In early 2009, the District 518 Board of Education began discussing the possibility of a flexible learning year, with plans to implement it for the 2009-2010 school year. Following three public meetings on the issue late last spring, the board opted not to pursue the plan due to concerns raised about the short timeline for implementing it, a lack of community support and negative reactions from staff members.

Another public meeting on the issue is set for 4 p.m. Monday in the Worthington High School media center. The school board will need to make its decision this month and submit the application to the Minnesota Department of Education by Feb. 1. The commissioner of education will issue a decision on the application in early march.

More information is available online at www.swsc.org or on the district's Web site at www.isd518.net.

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