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Board Approves Changes to School Day

by on December 18, 2017 10:09 PM

After two years of development and discussion at meetings and forums over the past eight months, State College Area School Board on Monday night approved a plan to extend the elementary school day and provide a later start time for middle schools and the high school.

The final vote was 8-1, with board member Laurel Zydney voting against.

Total recurring costs for transportation, additional staffing and curriculum that come with the change are projected to be $1.455 million annually with one-time costs of $450,000 for the first year of the new schedule in 2018-19.

District elementary schools currently start at 8:44 a.m. and end at 2:50 p.m., making it one of the shortest elementary days in the state. Under the new schedule, the elementary school day would be extended by 44 minutes, starting at 8:10 a.m. and ending at 3 p.m.

Middle school and high school start times would shift from the current 8:10 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., with middle schools ending at 3:42 p.m. and the high school at 3:40 p.m.

The changes are intended to increase instruction time at the elementary levels while aligning secondary times with sleep research recommendations for adolescents.

"No doubt approving the proposal would be a defining moment for our district," Superintendent Bob O'Donnell said prior to the vote. "There's no doubt in my mind this would be a monumental step forward and have a lasting impact on generations of our community's youth."

At the elementary level, the plan adds up to 24 minutes of core instruction time each day, more time for art, library and physical education, as well as a fifth special subject, which after community input was determined to be a still-to-be-developed STEM curriculum.

Board members and administrators said the extra time will benefit students' learning experience and help close performance gaps.

The plan also allows for increased time for enrichment and intervention services, as students currently miss some core instruction time for those. Additionally, music ensembles could take place during the school day and teacher planning and collaboration time would increase.

For high school students, the district intends to offer more flexible learning options, including online and hybrid courses for students participating in extracurricular and co-curricular activities. A zero-period option of a 45-minute period before the regular school start time will be offered, and the revised bus routes will offer transportation for students who opt for that period.

Changes bus routes have undergone extensive analysis throughout the planning. After working with the firm School Bus Consultants, administrators determined three new bus routes, fewer than initially expected, would be needed. Business Administrator Randy Brown said the annual additional transportation cost would be $350,000, including additional staffing and hours.

A one-time replacement of six 30-passenger buses with six 48-passenger buses would be needed at a cost of about $200,000. 

District students will not see an increase in the length of bus rides under the plan.

Throughout the process, some parents have expressed concerns that for elementary students, the day will be too long and not necessarily effective and that too many aspects of implementation have not been worked out. For high school students, some parents have said that with after-school activities, the later end time will make the day more difficult.

Several board members acknowledged those concerns. Dan Duffy and Gretchen Brandt said the same opportunities for flexible learning for high school students participating in sports and other extracurriculars need to be offered to students with after-school jobs.

Duffy added that the district needs to assist families with adjusting to changes in schedules and their impacts for all families.

"The change will present challenges for everyone involved and we need to work together for programs to be fully effective," Duffy said. "The district has a role to identify and recognize those challenges and support families in meeting those challenges."

In opposing the proposal, Zydney said she is concerned about the financial implications as well as impact on students with extracurricular activities and the larger community. She added that she is not sure the longer elementary day will be effective in closing the achievement gap, and that, though the district has been discussing the changes for several years, most people only became aware of the proposal in April. 

"I have very serious concerns about some of the specifics of the proposal and the speed at which we’re looking to implement it," Zydney said.

Duffy said that additional time itself is not a solution, but that the plan is a rare chance to get more of it and an opportunity to be used meaningfully.

Board president Amber Concepcion said that in the end teachers will have more time to work with students, and with each other to develop curriculum.

"Ultimately, I think this will be best for the greatest number of our students, and that’s really where I’m coming from,” Concepcion said.

With the changes approved, the district will develop the STEM curriculum for the elementary school fifth special. Vernon Bock, assistant superintendent for elementary education, said the district will work with Christine Cunningham, founder of Engineering is Elementary; Carla Zembal-Saul, professor of education in science education at Penn State, and Scott McDonald, associate professor of science education and director of the Krause Innovation Studio at Penn State.

The STEM special is projected to have $900,000 in annually recurring costs for faculty and curriculum and a one-time cost of $250,000 for curriculum.

District administrators and staff also will continue working on other aspects of the new school day, including changes to athletic schedules to reduce missed class time for high school student-athletes, expanding the flexible learning options for high school students, and finalizing a plan to accommodate more music ensemble opportunities for fourth and fifth grade students.



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at geoff.rushton@statecollege.com or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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