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Lake Superior district seeks to continue 4-day school week

The four-day school week has settled in as something of an institution in the Lake Superior school district on the North Shore. But the structure isn't guaranteed -- the district is reapplying to the Minnesota Department of Education to maintain ...

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The four-day school week has settled in as something of an institution in the Lake Superior school district on the North Shore. But the structure isn't guaranteed -- the district is reapplying to the Minnesota Department of Education to maintain its four-day week structure, saying it helps reduce operating costs and stabilize its budget.

Initial approval was granted for just three years. To continue a four-day week, the district -- which includes Two Harbors and Silver Bay schools -- must prove that the four-day week did not negatively affect students and that it saved a sufficient amount of money.

"With the reapplication, we're going to look at ... how has the four-day week been in the district? We're looking for them to document whether or not it has been working," said Keith Hovis, deputy communications director at Minnesota Department of Education, the agency that reviews the applications.

Funding issues are nothing new for the district. As early as 2001, the district was making tough decisions to balance the budget.

A $1 million deficit was projected that year, according to Lake County News-Chronicle archives, and the School Board discussed closing elementary schools in the district and asking for an operating levy, an increase in property taxes for district residents.

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The district eventually closed John A. Johnson Elementary and Mary MacDonald Elementary, and North Shore Elementary became an independent charter school. They also asked voters for an operating levy in 2006, 2007 and 2010 through mail-in ballots, but all three times the referendums were defeated. The four-day week is a relatively new solution to a problem at least a decade old.

As for the root cause of the district's funding shortages, said Superintendent Bill Crandall, revenue is simply not keeping pace with inflation and operating cost increases. He said the biggest culprits are fuel and utilities, staff benefits and unfunded mandates such as state-ordered student testing and teacher evaluation.

In summary, the school budget is complex system affected by many factors.

Dollars and cents

The district said it saved close to the projected $250,000 by switching to a four-day week. During community meetings last week at Two Harbors High School and William Kelley High School in Silver Bay, Crandall gave an overview of the money the district has saved, an amount about $50,000 a year short of its goal.

Most of the savings came from lower costs for utilities, fuel and food, and custodial and bus driver wages. Crandall said the savings have allowed the district to maintain about three full-time teaching positions.

"An individual teacher is approximately $80,000 (a year). The four-day week (savings) allows keeping staff members and maintaining programs," Crandall said.

Unexpected benefits

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Janelle Jones of Two Harbors has two kids in district schools -- one in third grade and one in eighth. She said she was initially a critic of the four-day week.

"When it came forward originally, I was not for it. I didn't think it would be a good thing ... but I stand corrected," Jones said.

She said her kids use the Fridays for extracurricular activities like taking art classes or playing hockey or more family time.

Many extracurricular groups have also taken advantage of free Fridays, scheduling practices and meetings on the day off and long trips on Thursday nights or Fridays.

As for student performance, a key component of the reapplication process, test results show no significant drops. The results are by no means outstanding -- in 2012, less than 60 percent of district students were proficient in math, according to Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results presented by Crandall. However, there were no significant dips in performance after the four-day week began.

Long-term consequences unknown

Four-day weeks have been a tool in Minnesota for only about a decade, but they remain controversial. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has spoken out against the four-day week structure.

"Do we really think our children, going to school four days a week, are going to be able to compete on a level playing field with children in India and China and South Korea who are already going to school 30, 35, 40 more days a year?" Duncan asked in 2011.

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The students in the Lake Superior district are in school for the same number of minutes they were on a five-day week, which the district achieved by lengthening school days. Though they're meeting their required time, some parents worry about student exhaustion caused by the longer day.

"The kids, I think, are being pushed and stressed. What are we teaching these kids about how to live their lives? They're on a treadmill from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.," said Beth Schield, a district parent. Some parents at the Two Harbors High School community meeting agreed.

Schield home-schools her own children, but she's had foster kids who have attended district schools and she coaches for the cross-country team. She added that she understands the district's decision and that it is in a difficult position.

"I'm really sad that education has to boil down to money," she said.

The district has to file its application with the Minnesota Department of Education by April 15, but there isn't a date set for when the decision will be made.

Part of the reapplication process is holding public meetings and seeking community input. The last meeting will be held Feb. 26 at Two Harbors High School at 6:30 p.m.

Surveys for parents, community members, teachers and students are also available at www.isd381.k12.mn.us .

Related Topics: EDUCATIONTWO HARBORS
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