Surprisingly, DISD Trustees Aren't Ruling Out Keeping (Some) Students in School Till July 26

At yesterday's Dallas ISD board meeting, trustee Mike Morath had a fairly novel idea regarding the school calendar. Long story short, he said: Let's consider testing the merits of a radical school calendar change that would include more than 200 days of instruction. And, he told his fellow trustees, let's not completely write off the progressive, possibly controversial and potentially expensive change simply because it might not work ... or simply because it might not work immediately.

Let's think about launching a pilot program, he suggested to the board. At which point a collective murmur filled the room.

To recap: The board's looking at five options for the next school year, as we told you earlier in the week. One of those other options includes a post-Labor Day start date and 180 days of instruction with a shortened winter break, while a second option is similar but with the school year starting before Labor Day. A third option, the one mentioned above, includes 203 days of instruction and a start date after Labor day, and the fourth and fifth options include 182 instructional days, with 10 fewer for students who perform well according to standards to-be-determined.

The hope for the last two options is that students would be motivated to succeed if they knew they could finish school days earlier than their lesser-performing counterparts.

The suggestion to start a pilot program based on an updated version of the third option (with a significantly longer school year) followed much discussion on the subject -- more than an hour's worth.

"What's the advantage of starting before Labor Day?" asked trustee Eric Cowan. To which principals who attended to advise the board said: Five days of instruction before mandatory state testing could prove significant. Another said some students work summer jobs that don't end until Labor Day. School board president Lew Blackburn added that electricity costs at the very end of August for such a large district are astronomical. "We teach our students about conservation," he said.

Bernadette Nutall said she would like the school year to start before Labor Day so that parents don't have to worry about childcare. "You do not understand the problems that parents have finding secure places for their children in summer," she said, perhaps forgetting that years ago, DISD started the day after Labor Day.

Cowan said he helped to develop the option of going till July 26. "My concern is more days, more time with teachers and students," he said. The object of the plan would be to narrow the achievement gap. He said it would also give teachers more flexibility in their lessons and could potentially keep them from cramming.

"I echo that entirely," Morath said. "This is a substantial step in wrapping our arms around these kids a lot more than we have in the past," though logistically, there's no denying it creates "massive challenges." (Surprisingly, perhaps, reps from the teachers unions weren't in attendance to outline those challenges to the board.)

"I don't much like the idea of working teachers a whole lot more and not paying them more," Morath said, delving into the sentiment Blackburn had expressed earlier. But, he added, "Our first priority is to our students, and I think we've got to go in this direction." He suggested creating a version of the long school-year option that begins before Labor Day and includes incentives for high-performers.

The financial bottom line didn't go ignored.

"As we consider extending or expanding anything, you're talking about more in salaries, but you're also talking about money for additional resources," said Carla Ranger. "All that has to be considered when we're working with less money this year and next year ... I'd like to hear from teachers about this. I'd like to also hear from parents."

It was at that point Morath offered the option of piloting the extended school year in several schools -- in one as-yet-unnamed feeder pattern -- and seeing how it works while biding time for budget cuts to settle in. (Which raises numerous challenges for the district, we were told this morning, among them transportation and communications issues.)

Nutall had concerns for parents. "You've got to talk to the parents. They will start moving out of the district. ... You have to dialogue," she said.

The calendar changes also include extending school days from seven hours and 45 minutes to eight and a half hours. DISD administrators will revise the calendar options for December, and the board will vote to adopt an option in January.

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