A brutal stretch of winter weather in January and February has left school districts throughout the state scrambling to figure out how to make up the days lost to cold and snow. As the Union Community School District Board of Directors gathered for their February 18 meeting, 11 days of school had already been postponed for Union students this year, with an additional cancellation last Wednesday adding yet another day.
As Superintendent Travis Fleshner and members of the school board addressed the need to restructure the current school calendar, they wanted to be reasonably confident that whatever date they set for the last day of school in 2019 would not have to be changed in the future. Following a lengthy discussion, the Board set June 5, 2019 as the final day for students and June 7, 2019 for teachers.
With the original last day of school slated for May 31, speculation in the community had some projecting the new last day of school would be pushed back to the middle or latter part of June. By choosing June 5 as the last day of school, the School Board was able to preserve the district’s Spring Break and remaining professional development days, while adding just three days to the students’ calendar. Believe it or not, doing so did not involve smoke, mirrors, or any form of “new” math. As noted by Superintendent Fleshner, the seeds for this calendar modification were actually sewn in the years leading up to the 2018-19 school year.
In 2014, the state of Iowa gave school districts the option to define the length of their school year in terms of 180 days or by an alternative of 1,080 hours of instruction. Union’s choice to count hours rather than days has given the district more flexibility to deal with days lost to inclement weather. Instead of weather delays causing the loss of entire days to be made up, the district could instead deduct the number of hours lost from its “bank” of accumulated instructional time. This year, more than six and a half hours of instructional time for each full day of school completed can be counted toward the 1,080 total. In recent years, decisions made by the School Board have allowed the district to bank additional hours of instruction.
Following the 2016-17 school year, Union eliminated half days devoted to professional development from its calendar, restructuring teacher inservice time to be conducted on other days. While that move did not change the total number of days students attended school, changing half days of attendance into whole days increased students’ instructional time by a whopping 40 hours over the course of the school year. Last year, the Board approved lengthening the school day by ten minutes, a change that banked an additional 30 hours of instructional time.
Superintendent Fleshner noted that while both of those time changes were made for the benefit of student learning, this year they have also saved the district from being forced into undesirable outcomes other schools with less flexible calendars must now consider to meet state attendance requirements.
The Board’s decision to extend the school year three days for students this year will allow the district to absorb more than three additional snow days, including last Wednesday’s, without having to change the June 5 date as the last day of school. Just how many more snow days Mother Nature has in store for area schools, however, is anyone’s guess; which leaves the Board the option to revisit the matter, if necessary, at a later date.
In other business, the Board received a report from guidance counselors Whitney Robbins and Amanda Arp about Zones of Regulation, a program taught in the elementary classrooms that helps students identify and self-regulate their behaviors. Robbins and Arp indicated that since its inception last year, both elementary schools in the district have seen fewer office referrals due to disruptive students.
As part of the consent agenda, the Board accepted the resignations of Union High School principal Jim Cayton and TLC Integrationist Dale Wambold. Fleshner indicated the search for a new high school principal will likely get underway in March and involve members of the community, in addition to school staff.