Friday, July 16, 2010

3 FROM THE DAILY NEWS ON THE SHORTER SCHOOL YEAR: Many campuses shorten calendar because of budget crisis + School board members across California agonize over shorter school year + For parents, shortened school year raises anxieties and costs

Many campuses shorten calendar because of budget crisis.

By Louis Freedberg, California Watch | from the LA Daily News

Despite findings by education experts that increased classroom time helps improve student performance, Los Angeles Unified and more than a dozen other districts in California are shortening the school year because of the ongoing budget crisis. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

07/16/2010  - 10:30:19 AM PDT -- A survey of the state's 30 largest school districts found that 16 plan to reduce the number of days in the upcoming academic year. The change will affect an estimated 1.4 million students, roughly half of them enrolled in LAUSD.

"This is a major setback," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "We're reducing opportunities for our students, which puts California students at a competitive disadvantage relative to other states."

A little more than a decade ago, California increased the number of instructional days to 180, bringing the calendar on par with most other states. Two years ago - with the state's economy plummeting - districts were allowed to reduce their calendar to 175 days, although few exercised the option.

Now, however, unable to overcome crushing budget deficits, districts throughout California have decided to shorten the calendar by five days.

Some of the districts are making the cuts by imposing teacher furloughs on "pupil-free days," which educators have traditionally used for training, class preparation or parent conferences.

Los Angeles Unified officials shortened the most recent school year by five days, and plan to cut five days plus two pupil-free days in the fall.

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said he philosophically opposes reducing the school calendar.

"The research shows that there is already not enough time in the school day, especially at the high school level," Cortines said.

"We should be lengthening the days and the calendar."

However, the district has had to cut more than $1.5 billion from its budgets in the last three years.

The reduction of the school calendar came this year, Cortines said, after he cut nearly three-quarters of the employees at the district's central office and half of the staff at local area offices.

The district had also already approved larger class sizes for kindergarten through third grade. Reducing the school year helped stave off further class size increases that would have left kindergarten classes with a ratio of 29:1 and middle school classes as large as 44:1.

The shorter year also helped save more than 2,000 teacher and counselor positions.

"This was the last thing I wanted to recommend ... I had no other choice," he said.

America's traditional school year, with its lengthy summer vacation, is viewed as an anachronism dating back to the time that children were needed to work on family farms. By comparison, students in Switzerland are in school for 228 days a year and in South Korea, 220.

California, which educates one in eight U.S. public school children, joins states like Kentucky, Missouri and Maine with a 175-day calendar.

The move follows other money-saving cutbacks, such as increasing class size during the critical early years of a child's education. Last fall, California Watch found, most of the state's 30 largest districts increased class size in kindergarten through third grades, in some cases to 30 students.

"California is the basket case of the country," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. "Fiscally, it is in worse shape than any other state."

What makes the shorter year attractive to many districts is that it yields large savings.

The state's 30 largest districts are expected to save a total of more than $200 million, including $145 million in Los Angeles, nearly $21 million in San Diego and $12 million in Long Beach.

In cutting the school year, however, California may be sacrificing a major source of revenue even while it attempts to trim its budget.

To compete for the U.S. Department of Education's $3.5billion school-improvement grant program, districts must agree to implement four turnaround strategies for their lowest-performing schools. Two of them would require expanding the school day, week or year as schools increase instructional time for core academic subjects.

Parents in Los Angeles already have a sense of what a shorter school year will mean. Facing a $640 million deficit, the district abruptly ended the school year on June 18, instead of June 25 as planned.

"We are all concerned about losing another week of instruction," said Ashley Postlewaite, whose two children attend Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silver Lake. She said the early school closure imposed a hardship on many families that were forced to make arrangements for an extra week of child care. "Everyone is shuffling kids around and pulling together to make it work," Postlewaite said.

LAUSD's tough choices Slipping further behind Hardship for families Sacrifices by teachers

Some districts have been able to maintain a 180-day school year by making cuts in other areas.

The Sweetwater Union High School District south of San Diego, for instance, imposed a 7.5 percent across-the-board budget cut and is encouraging commercial advertising in schools as a fundraising tool.

During tough bargaining sessions over the past several months, teachers unions have had a powerful incentive to agree to shorter school years. They faced the choice of accepting unpaid furlough days - and a modest salary reduction - or more widespread layoffs.

"It is horrible to put the classroom teacher in that situation," said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, which represents some 325,000 teachers and other school personnel. "Districts have been forced into these positions, basically because they have no other recourse."

Some educators who will oversee a shorter school year believe that it's more important for teachers to use that time effectively.

But Jennifer Davis, president of the Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning, said some of the most successful schools in recent years have demonstrated that more classroom time brings better results.

"The highest-performing public schools in America all show that added time is a significant contributor to the success of their students," she said.

Schools chief O'Connell worries that if the state budget crisis persists, an ever-shrinking school year and larger classes could become the norm.

"This is not hyperbole," he said. "Absent additional funding, this may only be the beginning."

  • Daily News Staff Writer Connie Llanos contributed to this report.

School board members across California agonize over shorter school year

By Rupa Dev, New America Media | By Vivian Po, New America Media | from LA Daily News

07/16/2010 10:00:00 PM PDT --For school board members at districts around the state, the decision to shorten a school year has been an agonizing one — made only after other drastic cuts have already been implemented.

Interviews by New America Media with elected board members from diverse backgrounds in several California districts underscore how being a school board member — long viewed as a starting point for higher political office — has become an exercise in decision making of the toughest kind.

"We've moved from saying 'no, never, we can't cut that, to 'which of the horrible options in front of us are possibilities to cut?'" said Mónica García, Los Angeles Unified Board president.

García remembers calling LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines earlier this year to suggest that the district might have to consider cutting the school year for the first time.

The district ended up doing precisely that — cutting one week not just from the coming 2010-2011 school year, but also from the one that just concluded in June.

"The decision to cut the school year came by acknowledging that the other choices were worse," explained García.

"By increasing class size and reducing supportive services for kids in schools, we've already participated in actions that could be characterized as 'education malpractice,'" García said. "When you are looking at whether to raise class size by another five kids in K-3 or should we eliminate arts and athletics, we decided it would be better to shorten the school year."

San Francisco Unified School District board member Jane Kim said that the decision to trim the school year by four days was made when almost every school program was in jeopardy. "We tried to make sure our cuts wouldn't hurt our primary goal, which is to close the achievement gap," she said. "We tried to keep as many services as possible in the schools, like nurses, counselors, social workers, and programs for lower-income students."

Many parents, she said, were receptive to the board's decision to cut instructional days.

"If we didn't reduce the school year, we would have dramatically increased classroom size," Kim said. "This wouldn't have been ideal because parents view small classrooms as the key to having quality schools."

Priscilla Cox, a board member at the Elk Grove Unified School District outside Sacramento, said no one was happy about having to reduce the school year because "the school year is already too short to get through all the instruction and material required by California's high standards."

"To know what works in schools, but not be able to (do what we need to do) because we don't have the resources is devastating," said Cox.

Teachers also supported the board's decision to shorten the school year. "From their perspective, class size is one of the most important strategies to meet the state's standards," she said.

This spring, the Elk Grove sent out pink slips to 790 teachers and counselors. After a range of budget cuts were finalized 114 teachers ended up getting laid off, and the district was able to keep K-3 class sizes to 24 students.

Chino board member Sylvia Orozco, a parent of three children who have attended China schools, faced a similar dilemma. The district had already reduced the number of librarians, and eliminated intervention counselors. The caseload for regular school counselors has ballooned to four hundred students per counselor.

"Board members, administrators and teachers were thinking 'what a shame' over losing five days of instruction," she said. "But the alternative would have possibly been more layoffs."

In some districts, however, board members believe that preserving the school calendar is preferable to other options.

In Oakland, for example, where the district just seven years ago was facing insolvency, the board agreed unanimously not to cut the school year, and to make other cuts instead. "When we first did our budget at the beginning of last year, we made a commitment that we weren't going to cut any instruction days," said Oakland school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge.

For many Oakland students, school is a safe haven away from violence that takes place on the streets. As a result, Hinton-Hodge said the board felt it would send completely the wrong message if the district cut the school year. "In fact, we want to see longer school days and more school days in the academic year," she said.

What concerns Los Angeles board president García is that despite make the tough call to shorten the school year, her district still has a long way to go toward resolving its budget problems. "We are still making lots of cuts at school sites and that is generating anger and outrage," she said.

"Will our kids start falling through the cracks?" worries Chino board member Sylvia Orozco. " All I can say is — I hope not."

For parents, shortened school year raises anxieties and costs

By Vivian Po, New America Media | from LA Daily News

07/15/2010 10:00:00 For some low-income parents, the decision by many school districts to shorten the school year has raised anxieties about the extra costs it could impose on them.

Unlike more affluent parents, most are not in a position to pay for extra classes or tutoring to make up for time lost. So they are also trying to find innovative ways to make sure their child does not fall behind academically, according to interviews in Los Angeles and San Francisco by New America Media.

Gabriel Medel, whose son will be a freshman at Hamilton High in Los Angeles in the fall, is the volunteer director of Parents for Unity, an education advocacy group formed by Latino parents in Los Angeles. He believes students who are less fluent in English — typically designated as English Language Learners — will be among the first to feel the impact of a shorter school year.

"The cut will have more impact on those who need more school instructional time and language development time, " said Medel, who works as a full-time Spanish-English translator. He said this is one of the main concerns among Latino parents, whom he said are well informed about the range of cuts the district is making.

But despite his concerns, Medel supports shortening the school year as an alternative to increasing class sizes or laying off teachers, which he said would have even more of a negative impact on English Language Learners who need as much time as possible in the classroom.

Because summer schools have also been cut, Parents for Unity, along with parents, local churches and community organizations have created a three-hour morning program for elementary and middle school students that is able to serve 135 students. Medel hopes to implement a similar program during the regular school year.

Un Un Che, who immigrated to San Francisco from China a decade ago, is thinking ahead about what she will do on the four extra days the San Francisco public schools will be closed during the coming year. She has two daughters at John Yehall Chin Elementary School, and another a preschool in Chinatown. She knows that child care can cost more than $10 an hour, which is often more than parents earn.

Che, who assists with case management at the Wu Yee Children's Services, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, plans to partner with other working parents she knows, asking one parent at a time to take time off from work to look after all the children in a group. That way, she said, they can design group activities or learning sessions for their kids, such as visiting the libraries, parks and museums.

Jenny Mai, a Chinese immigrant who has lived in San Francisco for 20 years, works as a temp worker cleaning houses and in restaurants. She worries about who will look after her son, a third grader at Visitacion Elementary School in the city. "Even one day of school cut (from the calendar) makes it hard on us, " she said.

Mai said she will probably ask her friends to help during those days because paying for child care is not an option.

She said if her son is not in school, she will have less flexibility to accept work assignments. Her husband works from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day in a restaurant earning minimum wage. Her work schedule depends on notices of temp jobs that arrive as late as just one or two days in advance. Having to reject job offers will not only mean earning less but also likely lead to fewer job offers.

San Francisco parent Daphina Marshall doesn't have to worry about child care because her 17-year-old daughter will be able to take care of her 9-year-old son when school is out. Both will be out of school the same days. But she wonders how teachers can successfully squeeze the academic year into 176 days, especially at her son's elementary school. "Elementary school is when you get your foundation and fundamentals in learning," said Marshall.

Marshall is a volunteer at Moms Mentoring Mom, a teen mothers support group in San Francisco's Bay View Hunters Point. She believes a shorter school year will especially have an impact on teen parents. "They cannot afford to take more time off school, " she said.

Because of its massive budget deficit, the Los Angeles Unified School District cut a week from the end of the school year in June. Vanecia Thompson, whose 13-year-old son attends Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles, believes her son has already missed out on some math instruction because of the shorter year. Ever since she was laid off last year, Thompson has been volunteering three days a week at her son's school. She said her son's math teacher skipped parts of the curriculum to fit her lesson plans into fewer instructional days.

To make sure her son's math keeps up with state and national standards, she is considering putting him in tutorial classes outside the school. But that will impose an extra financial burden on Thompson and her husband, who have four older children in high school and college. As it is, Thompson is considering asking her college-aged daughter to move back home from her dorm at a community college in Culver City to share the burden of child care.

Wu Ching, a Chinese immigrant in Los Angeles whose 12th-grade son has a learning disability, said all students in California deserve more school time to stay competitive in the global environment. "We need more school time, not less," he said.

  • New America Media is the country's first and largest national collaboration and advocate on behalf of 2,000 ethnic news organizations.

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