By DAVID GREEN
Morenci's School Improvement Team is considering a range of changes to make the district more attractive to its current student body and also to those from other districts who might consider enrolling in Morenci.
Some proposals can be easily achieved, such as arranging more activities in which high school students interact with elementary students, and some pose more of a challenge, such as convincing students to take the state achievement tests more seriously.
But among all the ideas, the most stark change would alter the school calendar to conform to what's known as a balanced school year.
Some people will refer to the plan as year-around school, said Morenci superintendent Mike McAran, but that's not an apt description of the schedule that's used in many districts across the country.
The schedule "balances out" vacation and instructional days by shortening the summer break and spreading more vacation days throughout the school year. The actual days spent in the classroom remain the same.
A balanced year schedule would start off the fall with 45 days of instruction followed by 15 days off for a winter break. Then students would be back in the classroom for 45 days, followed by a 15-day spring break. Another 45-day session would end with a summer vacation of 30 days before heading back for the final 45-day period in late summer.
The plan is designed to shorten the time students are out of the classroom. When students go home for the summer, McAran said, they lose some of the knowledge gained in school. It takes a while for students to catch up when they return to the classroom, and some kids take longer than others.
Board member Larry Bruce looked at the issue from a coach’s perspective. Coaches want their athletes to develop skills and keep them so they don’t lose their competitive edge.
“You would have to have your head in the sand if you didn’t think that applied academically, also,” Bruce said.
McAran said he wants to explore the possibility of changing to a balanced schedule as means of improving academic achievement.
Studies of school districts using the schedule have found a large improvement in attendance because the plan offers more opportunities for family vacations. The more frequent breaks also lead to an improvement in resistance to disease for many children.
The schedule lessens "burn-out" for both students and staff, and results in fewer discipline problems, although researchers aren't certain why.
Forty-five day class sessions followed by a break give teachers more opportunities to assess progress and, if desired, remediation can be offered during the break before a student moves on into new material.
Arguments against the plan include interruption with summer employment opportunities for students and staff, and an interruption of sports schedules. Many districts would face a problem with hot summer classrooms, but Morenci's buildings all have air conditioning. The increased cost of operating the cooling system would be balanced out by less heating during the cold months.
McAran intends to visit an elementary school in Holt next week to speak with staff members about the schedule to help determine if it would be feasible in Morenci. The Addison, Madison and Onsted districts are considering adopting the schedule that’s already in use by several districts in the state.
McAran wants to consider the proposal from all angles. For example, would it be incorporated in all three schools? Could it be used as a Title I program to address students in need of the most academic assistance?
McAran said the district needs to take action and not risk a take-over by the state education department if test scores don’t meet the requirements.
The district is producing a mix of high and low scores on the state assessment tests. It’s nothing to hide, McAran said, but the staff needs to assess why it’s happening.
He noted that the community has a high level of rental property which can lead to students moving into and out of the district.
Elementary school principal Gail Frey said that some students lose four to six months of learning when switching schools because they miss pieces of what different schools have taught. Staff members need to be able to help students get back on track quickly.
In addition to the balanced schedule, McAran said the improvement team is looking at several options to bolster scores and finances:
• Work to bring more students into the district;
• Open a Head Start classroom in the school;
• Open a Great Start classroom for four-year-olds in Morenci, in addition to the class offered at Little People’s Place;
• A Latchkey program to care for children before and after school to assist working parents;
• Demand more academic work from students;
• Bring back an alternative education program after the previous one was moved to Hudson;
• Offer more course offerings for students, including test preparation classes.