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Snow Wars: Schools struggle to meet required days of instruction

West of Kalamazoo, the Mattawan Consolidated School district shut down school for two days after a November windstorm knocked out power throughout the district and damaged the roof of the high school gym. Heavy snow, icy roads and dangerous wind chills have closed school seven more days since then.

That puts Mattawan three days over the limit of six missed days that districts are allowed by the state before they must add days to make up for lost teaching. “It's been frustrating,” said Superintendent Patrick Bird. “At this point, it looks we are going to be extending school to make that up.”

Thanks to a brutal, record-setting winter, it's a prospect facing districts across Michigan if they are to meet requirements that they deliver at least 170 days of instruction. Failing to provide enough school days can result in a district losing out on state aid payments. Some, like Mattawan, have already exceeded the six-day threshold for snow days or other emergencies.

Monroe Public Schools, southwest of Detroit, has closed 12 days. Many more are at the limit, leading to a debate among some districts, administrators and the state Department of Education over whether to add additional school days, or find other solutions.

Some argue that districts should have the option of adding minutes to remaining school days so districts aren't forced to extend the school year.

But many educators, as well as state education leaders, believe that would be a step in the wrong direction, as Michigan moves to mandate a longer school year next year.

“For me it's as simple as, if a student loses a day we owe it to that student to give them back a day,” said David Tebo, superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools, south of Holland. His district has been closed nine days, one for the funeral of a teacher killed in a December car crash and eight more for weather.

“I don't believe it's beneficial to add 15 minutes a day or 30 minutes a day. We took it back in a chunk. We should give it back in a whole chunk.”

Michigan Department of Education spokesman William Disessa said the department does not track the number of snow days taken by districts. But based on media reports and calls, he added, “I can safely say that a lot districts have exceeded or reached their six-day limit.”

Longer days or more days

Michigan currently requires school districts to meet two attendance standards to receive state aid: Schools must offer 170 days of instruction, and 1,098 hours of classes.

But a measure introduced earlier this month in the state House would give districts the option of adding a minimum of 30 minutes to each day to make up for lost days.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Phil Potvin, R-Cadillac, said it’s common sense to give cash-strapped districts options to meet state instructional standards. Each day added in June, Potvin noted, raises district expenses for transportation and other costs.

“You are talking about some money here. Anything we can do to keep more dollars in classrooms just makes more sense to me.”

Potvin won passage of a similar measure last May, but that was a one-time fix for the 2012-2013 school year. His new proposal makes that option permanent.

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan opposes it, as does the state Board of Education.

On Feb. 11, the board passed a resolution calling for lost days to be made up “with full days of student instruction, not by adding on minutes to the existing days remaining in the school year.”

In a statement, Flanagan said: “Adding minutes onto the end of a day won’t provide the full instruction that students missed on the snow days. When many nations are having their students spend 200 days or more in school, we can’t be moving in the opposite direction. Michigan students shouldn’t be shortchanged because of the weather.”

Potvin's reaction to Flanagan's statement: “He hasn't signed any checks lately for transportation.”

A history of shorting students

A 2009 report by the Center for Michigan found that districts across Michigan had dropped well below the 180-day school year that had been in place until 2003, when legislators dropped the day requirement and instead mandated 1,098 hours of instruction. The change was to help districts save on the cost of transporting students, food service, heat and electricity.

The report found that approximately 140 of 755 school districts and charter schools held school less than 170 days. More than a dozen held less than 160 days of classes.

Advocates for longer school years note that industrialized nations like Korea and Japan – which typically outperform U.S. K-12 students on standardized tests – schedule more than 200 days in a school year. They also argue that Michigan, more than most states, needs to give students more instruction. Last year, Michigan ranked 42nd in the 4th-grade math and 36th in 4th-grade reading.

In the wake of the report, legislators amended the school state aid law to raise the minimum number of days in the school year, first to 165 days, then to 170. It is to be raised to 175 days next school year. That would still leave Michigan behind most states: A 2011 study by the Education Commission of States found that more than 30 states scheduled a 180-day year.

Nonetheless, Cadillac Area Public Schools Superintendent Joann Spry said she believes local districts should be able to decide how they make up snow days. Her district has logged seven thus far, she said, adding, “We still have a lot of winter left.”

“I would side with allowing local districts to make the decision that is best for their schools and individual circumstances,” Spry said.

In making that decision, Spry said, districts should be able to weigh cost as well as academic considerations. District buses travel 2,000 miles a day transporting students at a daily cost of $6,700, she said, noting, “It is real money.”

Spry asserted that adding time to existing days can be just as effective as adding new days, “if planned and implemented to support student learning.”

At Hamilton Community Schools, Tebo is working with union representatives to make up the three days over its six-day limit. The district was to hold school Monday, which had been scheduled as a mid-winter break. It is also looking at scheduling a school day in March that is currently slated for teacher record-keeping.

But even if given the choice, Tebo said he has no interest in adding minutes onto the school day instead. “That puts more emphasis on saving money and not on doing what's right for kids,” he said. “That's the thing I struggle with.”

At Grandville High School near Grand Rapids, a pair of teachers have taken matters into their own hands when school is closed (the district has missed seven days thus far).

Advanced Placement calculus teacher Kelly Stouten and teaching partner Nancy Triezenberg send messages to students on snow days alerting them where they could find the day's assignment online. To enhance the lesson, they attach videos showing how to solve sample problems.

Stouten said they encourage students to email them from home with questions. Depending on the question, Stouten said, she will either make another video and send it to the student or email an image of a solved problem.

Stouten estimated 90 percent of her homebound students do the work.

“When they come back, it doesn't feel like we missed a day,” she said.

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