School year may begin earlier in Alexandria

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By Christy Goodman
Thursday, March 10, 2011

Alexandria students could head to class before Labor Day if the School Board gets its way.

The board sent a waiver request to the Virginia Board of Education asking to begin the 2011-12 school year Aug. 29 and end it June 15. Teachers and other staff members would start their year a week earlier.

"Adding time to our calendar will help our students with more in-class time before AP [Advanced Placement] and other exams," said School Board Chairman Yvonne A. Folkerts, after a unanimous vote in support of the waiver Thursday. "This calendar will also allow our teachers to be in their classrooms more - and pulled out less for professional development."

Teachers and parents came out in force this year to protest the waiver and a proposal to extending the school day by 30 minutes, saying they had not been informed about the changes to the calendar and schedules. Folkerts tabled the issue in January for further review.

The new proposal would add two days to students' and teachers' calendars. Students would attend 185 days, and teachers would be in their classrooms 194 days.

"Teachers' lives are so rushed and filled with work. We don't build in the professional time to catch up to the student work," School Superintendent Morton Sherman said. "The stretching of the calendar is designed to give teachers time to look at that data."

Instead of adding 30 minutes to each day, Sherman listened to a teacher review committee and proposed 21 extra hours of "professional learning time" for teachers.

"We need to figure out how we change and grow as professionals to meet the needs of our kids," Sherman said.

Sherman had started extending learning time by creating Saturday schools, online courses and allowing more flexibility in the use of time in high school. The school system also boasts a math center and being the only district in Virginia to have individual achievement plans for each student and similar plans for teachers.

Another committee is reviewing Sherman's proposal to add up to 300 hours of instructional time that is required as part of the federal mandate for T.C. Williams High School, which was identified as a persistently failing school.

He said he would like to add more rigorous academics, such as more International Baccalaureate programs, and satellite schools in the community to target students who are regularly absent in the coming years.

Sherman said he wants schools to be "personalized and customized."

"This innovation mentality has to start from the first day of school next year, that we help all kids achieve at the highest levels," he said.

By law, the Virginia State Board of Education must review each waiver request. The school system must prove that its new educational program is innovative and experimental to warrant a waiver, said Charles Pyle, a state Department of Education spokesman.

He said that most waivers within the commonwealth are given because of weather concerns but that some districts have gotten waivers for an experimental program in some schools.


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