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Flexible Learning Year report shared in public meetings

Ryan McGaughey/Daily Globe John Landgaard stands at the front of the Worthington High School Media Center with a PowerPoint presentation with FLY statistics.

WORTHINGTON -- Over the course of two public meetings on Monday, about a dozen parents and community members heard District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard report on the first two years of the Flexible Learning Year (FLY) calendar.

Plans for applying to continue the schedule in 2013 and beyond were also presented to two groups that included a handful of school board members and local administrators.

District 518 is part of a 25-school regional consortium that received permission nearly three years ago from the Minnesota Department of Education to begin the academic year prior to Labor Day and end by Memorial Day.

"We had a joint meeting on Nov. 7 in Tracy to discuss the current FLY, and the school board must confirm our commitment to continue by Jan. 31," said Landgaard at the noon meeting in the Worthington High School Media Center. "Our application would then be sent in to the Minnesota Department of Education on Feb. 1, and we would have a response from the state by March 15."

Under the plan, classes would commence in District 518 on Aug. 19, 2013, with the second semester due to start Jan. 6, 2014.

FLY originated with a vision to improve and make systemic changes to student achievement, Landgaard explained with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation.

The program's goals included creating more high-impact learning time for students prior to high-stakes assessments and to enable improved staff collaboration and development among the 25 school districts' roughly 1,400 teachers.

"The hypothesis was that by June 30, 2013, the consortium would see increased student achievement and established professional learning communities," said Landgaard.

With two years' worth of test results now available, Landgaard shared the data for both the entire consortium and for District 518 specifically.

In District 518, reading scores improved very slightly, math scores dropped somewhat, writing assessments registered a small decline and the composite ACT scores of local students also dropped a bit. (The complete FLY report will soon be available for viewing on District 518's website, Landgaard confirmed.)

"As an educator, two or three years of data is not significant enough to determine if this is a useful change or not," said Ann Mills, a parent of two Worthington High School (WHS) students and an instructor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College. "As a parent, I've loved FLY."

Landgaard pointed out that of the 14 sub-groups statistically looked at by the state to determine Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), eight saw improvements in test scores while six suffered small declines.

"It would really take five to seven years to figure out if FLY has been effective in raising test scores," Landgaard said.

All residents of District 518 were earlier invited to respond to an opinion survey addressing FLY via the district's website, but out of the approximately 2,600 students, only 14 completed the survey; 150 parents registered their opinions, and a total of 291 responses were received in the district.

"Consortium-wide, we received 7,025 responses; in District 518, the responses tended to be less positive about FLY overall," said Landgaard.

Comments of meeting attendees Monday were thoughtful but mixed, with a few voicing strong dissatisfaction with the FLY calendar.

One parent inquired whether or not staff in-service days could be conducted over a period of days in late August, rather than having students return earlier and thus eliminating what she sees as instructionally ineffective half days later on in the year.

"I think the half days are worthless, fluff -- nothing gets done," expressed the parent.

Total days in the first and second semesters are already unequal -- a problem especially at the high school level, responded Landgaard -- and such an arrangement would further abbreviate the already shorter first semester.

"Half days count as a full day of instruction, and some teachers have indicated they would prefer that in-service days not occur on Fridays or on the days before holiday breaks," Landgaard noted.

Another parent said she wouldn't mind if school started one week before Labor Day, but that starting two weeks prior to Labor Day was "hard to swallow."

Landgaard explained that one of the eight requirements for being in the 25-school FLY consortium was a verbal agreement to begin school two weeks prior to the September holiday.

At the noon meeting, Kristin Appel, a parent of two District 518 students, commented, "My concern is that the focus of FLY is so test-related. What is being done on the extra days to ensure high-impact learning?

"It feels like we're teaching to the test, and I would like to see foundational learning," she continued. "Seat time doesn't always equal improved test scores."

"We test kids to death," Landgaard agreed.

At the 5 p.m. meeting, parent John Stewart echoed Appel's thoughts.

"FLY seems to squeeze the summer months, with many school meetings and activities beginning in early August, and at this point, it seems we are changing the school schedule, affecting people's lives, in an attempt to get certain numbers," Stewart said.

"It's all about the test, the test, the test, and I think we lose sight of educating kids for the sake of education."

Landgaard admitted to sharing some frustration about the lack of empathy the state legislature generally has for education at present.

"The legislature doesn't have the will to do what needs to be done for education," Landgaard said. He said parents and other citizens should directly voice to legislators their concerns about education funding, and its unfortunate ties to test outcomes.

Landgaard also stressed that, while only 50 percent of District 518 students participate in extracurricular activities (fine arts, sports, FFA, 4-H, etc.), those that do nearly always have better test outcomes than those that don't.

"Involved kids consistently score better on tests," he said.

The complete FLY report will be available soon on District 518's website. Questions and concerns regarding the FLY calendar may be directed to the District 518 administration at 372-2172 or to the District 518 school board members. The next regular meeting of the District 518 school board is scheduled for Dec. 18.