MARSHALL - Ever since Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Alice Seagren approved the flexible learning year application presented by a consortium of 25 school districts in southwest Minnesota, there has been a lot of speculation.
All Minnesota school districts are required to start the school year after Labor Day unless they are granted an exception. With the state asking school districts to do more with less resources, area administrators knew they had to come up with a plan.
"Student achievement is measured through test scores," said Klint Willert, Marshall Public Schools superintendent. "The assessment dates are pretty well fixed by the state, so we wanted to maximize our preparations for those high stakes assessments."
To school officials, it made little sense to have a limited number of instructional school days to prepare before the set testing dates and then a significant number of days afterwards. So a group of superintendents started the ball rolling to investigate the possibility of starting the 2010-11 school year on Aug. 23, 10 days sooner than usual.
"It really started with conversations between school Superintendents," Willert said. "We asked each other how else we might be able to maximize instruction time to improve student achievement and teacher quality and effectiveness. It's been pretty monumental the degree of collaboration involved bringing together 25 school districts with a common goal like we have."
While test results will speak for itself in the near future, a news release Friday shed positive light on previous concerns.
Early on, skeptics of the flexible learning year whispered about the impact on state fair participants, family vacations and the shortened number of days a student could work in the summer time.
But in the report from Shelly Maes, manager of Member Services at SW/WC Service Cooperative, data compiled from the 25 school districts and county 4-H coordinators refuted previous reports that fair participation was down.
"SW/WC Service Cooperative is our central gathering place," Willert said. "They're a partner in our process and serve as a repository of information in terms of their role within the consortium."
Fair data was gathered in the report for all 4-Hers in the 10 counties where the 25 school districts are aligned. Individually, seven of the 10 counties showed an increase in fair exhibitors. Overall, there were 41 more participants, or a 6 percent increase, the report said.
"We had agreed as a consortium of schools that we wanted to do what we needed to do to support our families," Willert said. "Seventy-five percent of our students are in some student activity during the school year. And we believe that 4-H is an extension of learning for kids. We don't want to penalize kids for having opportunities presented to them."
Teachers have been cooperative and understanding, allowing students to complete their work in a timely matter, Willert said. He also noted that in speaking with a number of people, students were not compromised academically.
In addition to fair absences, the consortium agreed that time missed because of a family vacation would be designated as an excused absence.
"We treated vacation time as we would any other time of the school year," Willert said. "We realize the importance of family and that they travel when they can."
Overall, Willert said the response to the early start of the school year has been positive.
"A lot of parents have approached me to share that their student was ready to go back to school," Willert said. "I've had good feedback with how things have gone. It's really encouraging."
According to an earlier report done by SW/WC, the consortium's effort involves more than 16,000 students and 1,380 licensed professionals. With so much at stake, Willert said that continued discussions between administrators have been necessary and will be in the future.
"We've had some Superintendent meetings, and we've utilized that time to reflect on how things are going," Willert said. "I think as school leaders, given the scrutiny of schools right now, we owe it to ourselves to consider the possibilities that may exist in the future."
With any change, it takes time to adjust, but Willert hopes that the community feels as strongly as the school districts do when it comes to putting student achievement as the top priority.
"Initially, you face challenges," Willert said. "So you learn from them and make them better. The state has challenged school districts to do more school shared services. Now as a region, we've been given the opportunity to do it, and we'll do it well."