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4-day school weeks a possibility in proposed calendar

May 28, 2013

Sen. Roger Picard

WOONSOCKET – Could four-day school weeks be coming to Woonsocket?
It’s possible, if a bill that passed the Senate last week manages to find its way to becoming law.
Introduced by State Senator Roger Picard (D-Dist. 20, Woonsocket, Cumberland), the bill doesn’t mandate four-day school weeks. But with the state’s consent, school districts could adopt any sort of calendar they deem fit, so long as the school year provides no less than 1,080 hours of instructional time, the equivalent of the existing 180-day minimum.
Though the bill faces an uncertain future, it’s getting generally positive reviews from educators, including Woonsocket School Committeewoman Anita McGuire Forcier. She says the bill would allow the school district to consider a wide range of scheduling options to save money, including a four-day school week.
“The benefit is going to give us more options as we face a fiscal crisis,” says McGuire Forcier. “A four-day school week with longer school days is something that I would be open to.”
Kristine Donabedian of the Lincoln School Committee agrees.
“It’s a wonderful idea,” she says. “Districts will be able to design the school year according to their own needs and constraints, whether it be student based, financial or otherwise. At the same time, it provides safeguards against undesirable conditions, like exceedingly long days, by requiring the approval of the commissioner of education.”
The flexibility allowed by the proposed legislation would afford Lincoln the opportunity to improve class scheduling, provide more professional development and offer additional classroom time for students seeking extra help, subject to collective bargaining, according to Donabedian.
The measure has also won the support from the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. Tim Duffy, the executive director, says RIASC sees no downside in allowing school districts to experiment with alternative scheduling scenarios. Arguably, he said, there could be instructional benefit in tweaking the time-tested 180-day template in addition to cost savings.
The bill safeguards the interests of children by giving the Rhode Island Department of Education the power to veto district scheduling plans.
“We’re not opposed to it,” said Duffy. “It’s hard to imaging that RIDE would approve of anything that is not instructionally sound.”
The four-day school week is hardly a new idea. Some 300 school districts across the country are believed to have adopted four-day school weeks in 2012 because of budget constraints, according to U.S. News & World Report. Still, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has opposes the slimmed-down school week, and other critics say a shorter school week ill prepares students for the real-life rigors of a five-day-a-week, full-time job.
One Valley educator who hasn’t been won over by Senate Bill 1006A is Cumberland High School Principal Alan Tenreiro, who is also chairman of the Pawtucket School Committee. He says tweaking the 180-day calendar even a little is bound to have some unintended consequences that could be distracting and disruptive for school districts.
“You change one thing and it certainly has a ripple effect on so many things,” he says. “You’re talking about ripple effects on collective bargaining, transportation, policy, and parent involvement. Ultimately, the question you have to ask is does it make educationally; is it in the best interests of students?”
“It certainly allows for more flexibility,” adds Tenreiro, “but I’d be reluctant to implement it without a great deal of research.”
The bill doesn’t change the total amount of time students would have to spend in school during the course of the year, which the law currently defines as 180 days, assuming a school day lasts six hours. Picard’s bill redefines the instructional minimum as 1080 hours but it leaves it up to individual school districts to set the number of days in their school calendars or when those days fall.
When the bill passed the Senate last week, Picard issued a statement emphasizing the potential money-saving impact the measure could have on cash-strapped school districts like Woonsocket. The Woonsocket Education Department ended fiscal 2012 with a deficit of some $10 million. Although the WED was heavily criticized by municipal officials for mishandling its budget last year, there is a stronger consensus that the deficit was the result of
insufficient state reimbursements for education. Woonsocket and Pawtucket have filed a lawsuit against the state challenges the prevailing funding formula.
“We all know the budget difficulties that school districts face today,” said Picard. “My bill gives schools more flexibility, as long as they maintain students’ total learning time. If they find a creative way to save money while providing excellent education, such as longer but fewer school days, or scheduling breaks at times that let them save on heat, under this bill, they would be able to pursue that idea.”
Woonsocket Schools Supt. Giovanna Donoyan supports the bill, and not just because it could open up money-saving ways of structuring the calendar.
Sometimes, Donoyan says, smart teaching and saving money go hand in hand.
For example, she says, students returning from summer break typically need to be reacquainted with material they were already exposed to the prior year before they can advance. The school calendar could be used to cut back on this phenomenon, which educators like to call “summer learning loss.”
Instead of having as long a summer vacation, students might take a longer winter break, says Donoyan. A shorter summer would reduce seasonal learning deficits and educators would waste less time re-teaching material they’ve already covered the prior year.
“There is a significant cost involved in that that pushes us back,” says Donoyan. “Am I in favor of it? I’m in favor of anything that helps students learn.”
If a four-day school week ever comes to fruition in Woonsocket – or any other departure from the traditional schedule, for that matter – it won’t happen at the behest of an elected school committee. Thanks to a 2012 referendum, the sitting members of the existing Woonsocket School Committee are the last who will serve as a result of running for elective office for the foreseeable future.
After their terms end in 2013, their successors will be appointed by whoever is serving as mayor, with the ratification of the City Council.
It all depends of course, on whether Picard’s bill, which he submitted at the request of the existing School Committee, ever becomes law. For that to happen, the House would have to pass the same version of the bill, and the governor would have to sign it.
Larry Berman, the director of communications for House Speaker Gordon Fox, says no member of the House has introduced a companion measure to Picard’s bill.
“We’ve had no discussion about a modified school calendar,” he says. “There’s does not appear to be any interest in passing such a bill on the House side.”
But Berman said that doesn’t mean the proposal is dead. Picard could personally petition members of the House to consider passing a version of the bill to help the city’s school department through its financial crisis.
“It would be up to Senator Picard,” he said. “He could make his case for the bill to the House.”

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