Questions asked on calendar

Published 11:34 am Thursday, April 3, 2014

Even the early phases of a plan to adjust the Albert Lea school calendar have garnered added attention.

Mike Funk

Mike Funk

What was to be the first meeting of a committee of 30 invited movers and shakers meeting Monday with Superintendent Mike Funk and Director of Teaching and Learning Mary Williams turned out to be a full house. After learning of it through word of mouth, 30 others arrived. Some questioned the draft calendar for the 2015-16 school year. Some were there to gain information. Others supported it.

“It basically means a little shorter summer and breaks dispersed throughout the year,” Funk said.

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District officials call it a balanced calendar. It is a plan to have the same number of school days but shift the breaks to reduce what’s called learning loss, the lessons forgotten as a result of the three-month summer break.

Funk said the purpose of the committee meeting was to ask the members to go seek feedback and return April 29. He welcomed the added attendance Monday and said they can come back to any discussion on the issue.

“If the community seems like there is some interest in this, then naturally we would start to move forward,” Funk said. “If the community says, ‘No way we are not interested in doing this at all,’ we got it and we understand that and we are going to look at some other options that are available to us.”

The impetus for the calendar adjustment stems from the school board’s goals, which it calls “Aims.”

Aims for the Albert Lea Area Schools are:

• 80 percent students proficient in reading and math.

• 90 percent of students meeting growth targets.

• 100 percent of freshmen identifying a career path that meets their skills and interests.

• 90 percent graduation rate (presently in low 80s).

• An ACT composite average of 23.

Meanwhile, the district struggles with high poverty and need levels, Funk said. It has 50 percent of students on free and reduced lunches, a key federal government indicator of poverty, and it has 20 percent of students with special needs. In addition, because of immigration, there is an increasing need for English language learners.

Breaks during the year offer students who fall behind time to catch up through remedial classes.

“Having the ability to offer our students that immediate remediation after a stint of instructional time is definitely an advantage,” Williams said.


Why change?

“When I was hired as your superintendent, I talked about being student-focused, and that’s what a lot of our decisions are based upon,” Funk said.

He said a state law says school districts must cut the achievement gap between low-income and other students in half by 2017.

Students leave in early June, return after Labor Day, and for the most part it takes them until early October to catch up to where they were the grade before, he said.

“We’re doing a month, a month and a half, of review,” he said.

The new calendar would provide time for remediation throughout the year. If a student falls behind, the lessons progress on nevertheless. Students either have to take summer school or spend extra time after school.

“How hard do you think it is for a student to concentrate from 8 in the morning till 4:30 and get a lot of value about what they are learning in school?” Funk asked.

The superintendent said the proposed calendar seeks to end the first semester before winter break, along with giving middle and high school exams before the break.

Describing the existing calendar, he said: “We have them go to school until mid-December … then it is time for your holiday break, then it’s time for you to come back, be in school for two weeks if there are no snow days, and there were two or three snow days this year, and then we want you to take your final exams on stuff you learned before Christmas. And we want you to do well.”

He showed a slide with researched numbers that show low-income students regress more in their learning in the summer compared to middle-income students. The achievement gap grows each summer.

Funk presented reasons he has heard against the proposal.

“It was good enough for me. It should be good enough for my son or daughter,” he said, noting that people like tradition.

Another was that Minnesota has long winters, so people want to enjoy the summer months while they can. He said Albert Lea schools are close to having three years of heating and cooling upgrades done and said the last school will be ready by next summer. Most districts, he said, won’t consider a form of “balanced calendars” because of the lack of air conditioning.

State law says schools cannot start before Labor Day without a three-year waiver from the commissioner of education. The law is in place because of the Minnesota State Fair wrapping up Labor Day weekend and because resort owners lobby legislators against earlier starts.

No districts in Minnesota operate under a shortened-summer calendar, Funk said. He noted there are schools within districts, such as Austin or Rochester.


The process

Funk said feedback was important to the administration and the school board. The Minnesota Department of Education requires school boards to hold three public hearings prior to passing a nontraditional calendar. The gathering Monday was not one of the three.

The minimum number of days in Minnesota required for the education of children is 165. Albert Lea offers 173 days for grades K-5 and 175 for 6-12.

Williams said their findings show a balanced calendar results in improved teacher attendance and morale and reduces teacher stress. She said Austin school district officials cited a reduction in student discipline at Sumner Elementary School, which has a balanced calendar.

Districts with balanced calendars saw an increase in busing costs, Williams said, and she said there is a potential increase in electricity expenses from air conditioning. She said students in schools with balanced calendars mentioned the loss of income from summer part-time jobs. It will impact attendance at preschools and day cares, too.



Funk said the calendar would not interfere with the Freeborn County Fair. A draft calendar could change once the dates for the 2015 fair are determined.

He said students wouldn’t worry about school while on

“Why is March three weeks and October two weeks?” Funk asked. “The reason is simple: We don’t want to mess with the county fair, and we want to get first semester done before the holiday season, so we had to take that week out of there.”

The school year finishes by Memorial Day.

He noted the calendar offers more five-day school weeks and fewer of the three- and four-day weeks than the conventional calendar has.

Why in August and not June? Funk noted the community offers many youth activities in June and July, such as baseball, soccer and even off-season basketball. August has 4-H, but he noted the district allows FFA members to participate through the year and 4-H can have the same flexibility.

The prep sports calendar would remain the same regardless of the school calendar, but the two-per-day practices of August would change. He cited an Austin varsity soccer coach, who said students came in either before or after school, but during playoffs in October, there was an advantage — he could games because there was no school.

Funk said teams already continue during breaks, such as how basketball teams play during winter break. He said the Big Nine Conference is aware of Albert Lea’s proposal.



Audience members had questions Monday.

• What about people who turn 5 after Aug. 3 but before Sept. 1? The state-mandated date for being 5 when entering kindergarten remains Sept. 1.

• Isn’t the Freeborn County Fair the first week of August? Typically, it is partly in July and ends the first weekend in August. But if it is the first full week of August, the district would adjust the calendar.

• What about teachers who teach remedial classes during the breaks? Teachers participate on a voluntary basis, paid for by funds from the federal government. They already do this after school four days a week. The district calls it targeted services.

• Will there be busing available for remedial instruction during breaks? Yes.

• What about the heat suffered by children who walk to school or ride the buses in August? Funk said it is a valid point. He grew up in Arizona.

• What about prep time with teachers? Teachers at schools with balanced calendar report having more time to prepare for classes, Funk said.

• Why three weeks in March? It’s not cut in stone, Funk said, but the model shoots for 45 days of instruction and 15 off, which translates to nine weeks in school and three weeks out.

• Why not just one school, like in Austin? Funk said it is difficult for families with multiple children to plan trips when schools have different schedules.

Other people didn’t have questions but comments. Commenters didn’t offer names when they stood to speak. A teacher from Austin who wasn’t at Sumner Elementary School said other factors were at play in score improvement there, such as a new reading and math curriculum,  as well as an improved teacher-to-student ratio. She said because some students have transferred out of the school, the comparison in scores isn’t the same.

Another commenter said her online research online found “minimal, slight or inconclusive” results with year-round calendars. She said she would like to see officials speak with districts that tried it and changed back. Another person questioned why propose the change when there is little impact.

For the traditional student the calendar change won’t have an impact, Funk said. He reminded them research shows the impact comes with low-income students, particularly with reducing the summer learning loss.

“When we bring up one population, it’s going to help all of our kids,” said another commenter.

Student Sarah Savelkoul, a pool lifeguard, said her main concern is summer employment.

City Manager Chad Adams said the pool could lose money due to decreased attendance — it doesn’t make money to begin with — but he said that was the only way the city leaders saw a changed calendar would impact the city offerings.


Comparing the calendars


School calendar for 2014-15

(Already approved and set)

Sept. 2: First day of school

Oct. 16, 17: MEA

Nov. 7: Workshop day

Nov. 27, 28: Thanksgiving break

Dec. 12: Pre-K conferences

Dec. 22-Jan. 2: Winter break

Jan. 19: MLK Day

Feb. 16: Presidents Day

March 20: Pre-K conferences

March 30-April 3: spring break

May 25: Memorial Day

June 5: Last day of school


School calendar for 2015-16


Aug. 3: First day of school

Sept. 4-7: Labor Day break

Oct. 5-16: Fall break

Nov. 26-27: Thanksgiving break

Dec. 21-Jan. 1: Winter break

March 7-25: Spring break

May 27: Last day of school

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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