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State BOE approves pilot program for more flexible school days

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By Ryan Quinn 
The Charleston Gazette

Members of the state Board of Education unanimously approved Wednesday a pilot program that will give school districts more flexibility in planning their instructional days.

All 55 county school districts may apply, said Betty Jordan, executive assistant to the state schools superintendent. The few districts accepted at a later board meeting, likely in the spring, will receive permission to break current state education policy requiring schools to provide a defined number of instructional minutes per day — 315 minutes for elementary schools, 330 for middle schools and 345 for high schools — at school facilities.

Jordan said the districts accepted into the pilot will be able to extend or shorten the instructional period at one or more of their schools and also count out-of-class teaching — like students receiving instruction online during a snow day — toward their instructional minutes.

“It would be like a virtual day,” Jordan said. “Really capturing the power of technology.”

Officials said some schools, like those in mountainousness areas with transportation challenges, may find it hard to meet the new requirement under Senate Bill 359 to offer 180 instructional days.

The bill passed in 2013 and went into effect this school year, after, for instance, Kanawha County missed 19 days because of both a harsh winter and the water crisis.

Schools in the pilot program will still be required to technically have 180 days — that requirement is part of state law — but there won’t be a requirement on how long those days are or whether some are held outside the classroom, Jordan said.

She noted private schools already have permission to only have 300 minutes, or five hours, of instruction each day, and only on average — meaning they just have to divide their total instructional time by 180 days and come up with at least five hours a day.

Jordan said the state will monitor how students perform in these districts over two or three school years to ensure positive innovation instead of, for example, teachers just having students fill out electronic worksheets on snow days. There will also be certain requirements, like an 8-hour work day for teachers.

Also Wednesday, the school board approved the next Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives for Science to go into effect July 1, 2016. Michele Blatt, state assistant superintendent for the Division of Educator Quality and System Support, said between now and the 2016-17 school year, districts will work on getting ready to implement the standards.

West Virginia’s Next Generation Standards, based on the Common Core standards that at least 46 states have adopted, have already been fully implemented as of this school year for reading and math. A new online, statewide standardized test, which will actively change questions for students based on whether they answer previous questions correctly, is replacing Westest this year.

State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano gave a presentation Wednesday on the standards’ current implementation before the board and an audience containing — according to state Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordiero — about 25 local school superintendents, plus other education officials.

At a time when Republicans, who recently took over both houses of the state Legislature for the first time in eight decades, have expressed opposition to the national Common Core standards on which West Virginia’s new standards are based, Martirano repeatedly said the state should not deviate from the new requirements.

“I’ve heard from teachers from all across West Virginia: ‘Dr. Martirano, please let us see this through, please let us stay the course,’” he said.

The presentation included several local school leaders touting the standards. Gail Adams, who was named the state’s teacher of the year in October, recounted how her 10th grade English-language arts class at Wheeling Park High School, in Ohio County, prepared to read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” including by researching the Library of Congress’ oral histories of blacks in the South in the 1930s and creating poems about them; analyzing photographs of small Alabama towns at the time; and acting out a jury trial like the pivotal one in the classic novel, which deals with race issues.

“Everything that I teach is now connecting to what’s going on in the world, and the kids are learning, even the ones that are reluctant learners,” Adams told the Gazette.

Board member Wade Linger highlighted education officials’ analyses showing the vast majority of the state’s former math and reading standards have carried over into the new requirements, and said 100 teachers have analyzed them. He said legislators have questioned him about the standards but have been open to explanation.

“I keep saying it’s not that big of a deal,” Linger said.