With all the growing financial pressure, the Forest Lake School Board recently held a public meeting examining the switch to a four-day school week. According to Rob Rapheal, a Forest Lake School Board member, about 150 people attended the meeting. Of those attending, he saw overwhelming opposition to the four day school week. The four day week causes the school day to extend until after 4pm, and many parents with students involved in extra-curricular activities expressed concern about overextension. Rapheal also pointed to concerns that lower-performing students would be most negatively affected by the new schedule. Special education and “the lower 25% might have a harder time with this,” Rapheal said.
Click Here to Read Part One of MN 2020’s look at four-day school weeks.
Bob Doetsch, the Blackduck school principal, explained how more than $1 million has been cut from the schools budget in the last ten years. This year he went to the school board and said, “There are no places to cut.” Because of the past cuts the alternative to the four day week would have been cutting teachers and programs while growing class sizes in grades K-3 and Doetsch “didn’t want to go there.” He also pointed to two recently failed referendums as precursors to the switch. “This way we have shown people have we have money problems and we have to do something.”
Initially, students at MACCRAY schools had difficulty adapting to the longer day. With hard work and dedication from administrators, teachers, and the students themselves, most have adjusted well. The educators at MACCRAY exuded pride in the ability of their school to cope with the four day schedule. The surrounding community came together to lend a helping hand as well. For example, the YMCA in Willmar, about 20 miles from Clara City, where the MACCRAY High School is located, began offering special deals on Monday; the extra day students received off.
Melissa Sparks, a MACCRAY school counselor, pointed out that evening times are now much shorter for students. Lending some credence to the concern of Forest Lake parents, Gary Sims, the principal of MACCRAY Senior High School, stated he has not seen many problems with sports at the varsity and junior varsity levels, because of the later game times, but middle school sports have had time conflicts with competing schools. While stating that students “absolutely” will have less evening time at home with their families, Doetsch is hopeful families will take advantage of Sunday nights to spend time together.
Last year the MACCRAY High School did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) because one sub-group out of 15, special education students, did not pass a high stakes test given to the entire student population. The Minnesota Department of Education reports that MACCRAY passed 93.3% of NCLB’s requirements yet are marked as failing. Sims is very concerned about the negative perception of the community toward public schools failing NCLB’s ever rising standards, which according Minnesota’s principals in a recent MN2020 report, are unobtainable. “Nobody blamed the five day week” when AYP was not achieved, “but they’ll blame the four day week if it happens again.”
With four or five day school weeks, “No Child Left Behind is always a challenge,” Deb Nelson, a special education teacher at MACCRAY said. Sparks, who has children in MACCRAY’s system, alluded to the effort being directed toward the federally mandated tests: “Kids come home every night with worksheets to prepare them for the MCAII tests,” Sparks said.
As I heard from the MACCRAY educators and Rapheal, the decision came down to cutting a school day or cutting teachers and programs. Sims specifically pointed to two student teachers and courses such as world languages and music that were saved by the reduced transportation costs of the four day week this year. With cuts looming the futures of the teachers and courses are uncertain.
The outlook for education from Minnesota’s state policymakers is bleak. Cuts will continue for schools, even if they switch to a four day school week. While Barack Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan is pushing for six day school weeks to keep up with educational attainment of students from Europe and Asia, should Minnesota policymakers be forcing cuts and shorter school weeks on our students? Education needs to be given priority during this time of economic hardship, so we can come out on the other side more prosperous and innovative than ever. The alternative only leads to lagging educational attainment compared to the rest of the nation and the world. In a global economy, sputtering markets cannot result in education cuts.
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