Denfeld High School junior Julia Ketola does something unique to ensure she learns everything she wants to in a school district with just six periods: she's auditing a choir class during the time allotted for an online Spanish course in the library, and does the Spanish work from home.

That's on top of a student government class she takes during "zero hour," the voluntary slot that precedes the first official hour of the school day. The district is proposing reducing some of those zero hour offerings as it works to meet a $3.3 million budget shortfall for next year.

"We want zero hour maintained because we feel like it's (the only opportunity) to have seven courses in the day," Ketola said outside of a School Board meeting Monday, where she and a classmate brought a petition signed by 250 people asking for the offering to be kept.

If the district loses zero hour options, the students said, and it will likely lose students to other districts where seven periods are a reality.

The School Board committee meeting was held to talk about adjustments to the budget, before administration asks the board for final approval in June. Some board members asked that the item - with a savings of $96,000 - be removed from the list of reductions after hearing from constituents.

"Kids staying here don't want to leave," said member Alanna Oswald. "Let's not give them a reason."

The district has had zero hour for several years, put in place after the seventh period fell victim to budget cuts more than a decade ago. It started as a slot for elite music groups such as Sterling Strings and Little Mob. Over time, physical education, health and some advanced science classes were found among those early morning offerings. But because the classes are voluntary, the school district isn't reimbursed by the state for the time students spend in them. Over time, that can turn into lost revenue as some students turn to post-secondary options or take fewer classes their senior year.

The district does not offer transportation for zero hour, again because of the voluntary aspect. And that lack of transportation was cited by administration as a contributor to the district's persistent achievement gaps between black students and white students, and between students living in poverty and those who are not.

"Not every student can access zero hour," Superintendent Bill Gronseth said, who noted he would prefer to take things a step further and eliminate all zero hour offerings, including the music groups, possibly turning them to club status as other districts have done.

"By adding zero hour, you make a seven-period day for some kids. ... We've spent a lot of time and energy addressing the achievement gap. Providing additional opportunities for some kids broadens that achievement gap," he said.

Curriculum director Mike Cary gave the example of two students maxing out on credits during the regular day, and receiving identical grades throughout their high school careers. But if one had added credits from zero hour, he said, that student would have the advantage in terms of scholarship earning, he said.

Member Art Johnston said the issue wasn't about equity, as administration was saying, but about the district's deficit.

"We are going to lower our schools to the lowest common denominator," he said, by making that particular cut.

Denfeld High School principal Tonya Sconiers said she would argue that achievement for all students has been lessened since the seventh period was cut in 2003.

"Someone is contending that by eliminating zero hour we will lose students," she said, but it's been happening for years because of the seventh period decision. It's not just college-bound kids who want seven periods, she said.

"I've asked students - not the ones who are going to come and talk at this meeting," Sconiers said, but students who say they are behind in credits or who take a district bus to school because they don't have a car or a ride. "'No question,' they say ... We need to find opportunities to find that seven-period day."

While it couldn't be ready for next year, administrators said an alternate form of scheduling that would allow more classes could be explored, which would come at a cost, but not as great of a cost as reverting to the old seven-period structure. That's estimated to be more than $2 million to pay for both the middle and high schools.

Denfeld junior Kylie Shea said she knows lots of students without transportation who find ways to make it to zero hour.

"I'm a ride hopper," she said. "If you really need the credits and you are willing you can get yourself there."

The students said that extra hour frees up time during the day to take electives that make school fun and allow for more creative learning. Such courses relieve stress and make school feel less business-like, Ketola said.

Sconiers said between 150 and 180 students are enrolled in zero hour at each of the two high schools.