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Ask Mr. Answer Person: "Why is the Decorah School District still using days instead of hours to meet state curriculum standards?

Posted: Sun, May 13, 2018 4:42 PM

(Mary Ann e-mails: "Dear Mr. Answer Person,  My question is regarding the timing of the school year in Decorah.  It seems that Decorah is the only school district in the area that is making up days at the end of this year due to snow days.  My brief Google search has indicated that only eight school districts in the state still count full days, and not hours, when determining time spent in school.  The schools who count hours have a lot more time "banked" for dealing with weather delays and closings.  Many of these districts also have spring break and a smaller fall break.  They usually do not have to "make up" these days.  The end of their school year, set the year before, is the actual last day of school, under most conditions.

Granted, this year has seen a lot of snow days--but we've had them before--after all we live in an area with many gravel roads and even paved streets that are treacherous to drive in inclement weather.  The decision always has to be made to err on the side of safety.  We will have closings.  It is a fact of where we live.  So it begs the question:  Why are we one of eight school districts still requiring whole days to be made up when nearly the entire state of Iowa has figured out a better way?"):

Mr. Answer Person says: "We forwarded your question to Decorah School Superintendent Mike Haluska, who e-mails:

"We are one of few districts in the state who base the (school) year upon days, not hours.  Hopefully the reader took the time to reflect upon the qualifications required of a school district to base a schedule on hours.  In all Iowa school districts, a school day consists of a minimum of six hours of instructional time for all grades 1 through 12.  Likewise, the minimum week is 30 hours and the required annual hours are 1,080.  That time is arrived at by taking the shortest school day in the District (8:00-3:00, or seven hours) and subtracting out the longest lunch period in the District (45 minutes at the HS), putting  our "normal" day at six hours and 15 minutes.  Over the course of a week, we exceed the minimum by 75 minutes.  However, we must subtract out the hour late-start on each Wednesday, putting us only 15 minutes per week over the minimum required time.  That cuts things pretty closely. 

One thing that could be done is to extend the school day.  However, we have vastly more students involved in extracurricular activities than many schools do.  Approximately 95 percent of our middle school students and 90 percent of our high school students are involved in extracurricular activities.  If we extend our school day another half-hour, that will inevitably force more students in grades 7-12 to miss more academic time than they already do.  I don't feel that's acceptable so we can minimize a few additional days at the end of the year.  Secondly, we are bound by the Master Contract with the Decorah Education Association for a work day from 7:45 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.  Where exactly do we get the additional half-hour and still have the necessary support for our youngest students at the end of the day to be sure they are getting on the right bus, leaving with the right person, etc.?

The final thing I would say is that the 1,080 hours is a "minimum."  Our current schedule puts the Decorah Schools at 44.5 hours over that minimum during the course of the year.  I believe every hour of that spent in the classroom is valuable.  Furthermore, when we factor in the number of HS students taking either AP courses or concurrent (college) credit courses, both of which have timing requirements, other issues loom.  After all, Decorah High School isn't routinely ranked among the top-10 high schools in Iowa because we work with bare minimums nor because students are missing excessive classroom time due to early departures for extracurricular activities.  Our academic success, in part, stems from the hard work of many.  If that pushes us a few days later at the end of the year than some of the other schools the writer cites, then I think that's a fair trade."