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Schools struggle to finish 180 days

Feb. 09, 2008 @ 11:08 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Unlike many counties in West Virginia, Cabell County Schools typically do not have to worry about reaching 180 days of instruction in a school year.

This year is different. A water main break late last month prompted schools to close for two days, pushing the total number of days missed so far this school year to five. The county only has four makeup days left, so the county changed two days designated as early dismissals -- Feb. 13 and April 30 -- to full days of instruction.

With winter still in full swing, though, there's no telling whether inclement weather will force more cancellations. Jedd Flowers, director of communications for Cabell County Schools, said other options would be considered if that happens.

In the past three years, Cabell County has been successful in attaining 180 days of instruction. However, many counties face this problem on an annual basis and often fall short, raising the question of whether student achievement is suffering. That's a key issue for West Virginia, which lags behind the nation in many academic categories.

A review of state Department of Education data shows that only 12 of the state's 55 county school systems provided 180 instructional days each year over the last three years. During the 2006-2007 school year, 40 counties provided less than 180 days of instruction, as suggested by state code.

Preston County, by far, has the worst problem. In the past three years, students in this Eastern Panhandle county have gotten an average of 172 days, with its worst coming last year when they only had 167 days of school.

Superintendent John Lofink, who has worked in Preston County since 1977, said he can't remember one year where the county actually hit 180 days.

"We face this scenario every year," he said of a county that averages anywhere from four to 10 feet of snow annually. "We know we are in a county that is going to have some snow days."

The problem facing Preston and other counties in West Virginia is a state law that stipulates students start by Aug. 26 and finish classes by June 8, with teachers out on June 10. Combined with the employment term for teachers set at 200 days (excluding weekends), administrators often find it difficult to build a schedule that gives them the flexibility to meet 180 days of instruction.

"I believe we should have complete flexibility so we can meet the needs of the community," said Todd Alexander, Cabell County Schools administrative assistant for secondary schools. "All that we would require is an extra week in August or June, and we could lay out a good calendar."

There is no penalty for counties that fall short of 180 days, although Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he worries that student achievement is hurt by a lack of instruction time.

Plymale said his concerns for the calendar also have been expressed by the state Department of Education. But when it comes up in the Legislature, votes to change calendar dates or give counties more flexibility are scarce.

"Each county should have the ability to be flexible," Plymale said, adding that in his 16 years, a bill to change the calendar perimeters has failed three times. "Believe me, I think there are issues we need to discuss."

At the same time, Plymale said 180 is an arbitrary number that was chosen a long time ago based on an agrarian calendar. Still, he said he's willing to do whatever it takes to improve student achievement, whether that means requiring 180 days of instruction or some other means.

Part of the problem in building the calendar, Alexander said, is working around the holidays, and getting all the state-required staff development, instructional support and outside school environment (OSE) days.

Those OSE days are most counties' plans for making up lost days of instruction. West Virginia Education Association President Charlie Delauder and a spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Education said legislators put OSE days into law in the 1980s when they could not afford to give teachers a raise. They said the days were meant to be extra paid days off for state education employees with the caveat that they could be used as makeup days.

Law also stipulates that at least four of those days be scheduled after March 1. Some eastern counties that deal with more snow days often schedule five of their OSE days after March 1 to give them another possible makeup day. But a majority of counties schedule two OSE days during the first semester, either before weather becomes an issue or on days that could be considered questionable.

For example, Cabell County's two OSE days in the first semester were scheduled on the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve -- two days that the district was unlikely to use as makeup days. Had the second OSE day been scheduled sometime during the previous week, students could have made up a Dec. 5 snow day.

Alexander admitted the county could have built a schedule with a usable OSE day in December. But he also reiterated that the calendar is tight, and sometimes they just can't schedule Christmas Eve and the day after Thanksgiving as off days. However, the district did schedule the day before Thanksgiving as an off day.

Wayne County made a similar move, scheduling two OSE days on the Wednesday before and Friday after Thanksgiving.

Each county, however, also lost Tuesday, May 13, because of West Virginia's primary election.

But there's also harm in scheduling too many OSE days after March 1, Alexander said of the many counties that don't receive unmanageable snowfall amounts. During the 2004-05 school year, for example, Cabell County only had to make up one day, leaving three, four-day weeks between early March and late May. When that happens, it interrupts the flow of learning and can provide problems for parents who must find a babysitter or a daycare.

Also built into the calendar is a spring break, five days that counties aren't required to schedule off. But, many county officials say parents and even teachers would offer resistance to such a change.

"It's been done in the past, and you have people making plans for spring break," Alexander said. "You have poor attendance (with students and teachers) and end up with a lot of subs."

And, without 75 percent attendance, the school day doesn't count.

Delauder believes counties do have enough flexibility to get 180 days of instruction if they were stern enough to schedule classes over spring break.

In many states, including Maryland, spring breaks are an afterthought, while numerous snow days and a limited amount of makeup days included in the calendar become irrelevant. Garrett County (Md.) Superintendent Dr. Wendall Teets, a former West Virginia educator and superintendent, said Maryland law requires schools to teach 180 days. And, as a neighbor to Preston County, Teets said he faces similar school cancellation figures but have the flexibility and responsibility to make changes to the calendar in order to meet 180 days, even if that means taking away certain holidays or adding days on to the end of the year.

"We're required to make 180 days, and we build five days into the calendar," Teets said, adding that his district in the past has taken away President's Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day as days off when necessary.

No matter how many days of instruction his schools actually get, Lofink doesn't think Preston County students are at a lower level academically than students from Kanawha County, which rarely has to use all of its makeup days. He said his teachers prepare at-home assignments, and many have Web site students can log onto to review lessons or check assignment due dates.

Patte Barth, the director for the Center for Public Education, said it's not fair to compare test scores from a county that reaches 180 days to one that doesn't.

"The relationship between time and learning is hard to nail down because the strongest relationship is dependent on how the time is used," she said via e-mail. "International comparisons, for example, don't produce any discernible patterns. Many European countries have a longer school year than the U.S, and do as well or sometimes better than we do. At the same time, Finnish students -- who famously outperform everyone else -- have one of the shortest school years.

"The best evidence shows that when time is used productively, it does relate to higher student achievement," Barth added. "But the emphasis is on how the time is used."