Alexandria students could find themselves in class for an additional 10 days next year, according to a plan that the city's school superintendent is promoting as a way to help students learn, even as she says she is concerned that the city may not be able to afford her plan.
An extra two weeks before Labor Day would give Alexandria students valuable time with their teachers and could help raise test scores, Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry said in an interview yesterday. All children could benefit from such a change, Perry said, but it could especially help poor children, who often are aided by more class time.
"We want our children to have the very best, and this is a way of giving them more of that," Perry said. "It's not a magic bullet that will solve all of our problems, but it's a start to doing something new and fresh."
With 11,000 students, many of them minorities and half of them poor enough to qualify for reduced-price lunches, Alexandria's schools have been making gradual progress in meeting more stringent state testing and accreditation standards. But school officials agree that there is more to be done.
The additional days could help in that effort but would cost the system about $2 million in teachers' salaries, transportation and operating expenses, officials said. The price tag has raised concerns among some School Board members and city officials, particularly at a time when state budget cuts are expected to tighten school funding.
"Obviously we'll have to see if the money is there," said School Board Chairman Mark R. Eaton. "But I think any time you give students more time with teachers, you're doing the right thing."
While agreeing that some additional class time could be helpful to students, officials of the local teachers union said 10 days is too many.
"Some extra days can help, but there are after-school programs and summer school programs that address some of these issues, too," said Lisa Cashion, director of the Educational Association of Alexandria. "Kids need a break."
The proposed measure would increase the number of school days from 180 to 190 for students and 190 to 200 for teachers, which would be the most in the region, officials said. Fairfax teachers work 193 days, and Arlington teachers work 194. The school system would have to get permission from the state Board of Education to add the days before Labor Day, a state official said. About 75 schools in the state have permission to start classes before Labor Day, including all schools in Loudoun County and several in Fairfax.
Cashion said school officials and teachers also have disagreed about how teachers would be compensated for the extra time. Teachers want a per diem rate for each of the extra days, but the system has balked at that measure, she said.
Perry, who arrived in Alexandria about a year and a half ago, has not formally offered her proposal to the School Board, which would have to include it in the budget for fiscal 2004. Several School Board members said yesterday that they generally favor the plan and believe it would benefit virtually every student. But several added that logistics still have to be worked out, including how much extra time teachers would have to work to prepare for the 10 extra days.
"I think it's something we'll be able to afford and work out," said board member Mary M. "Mollie" Danforth. "With the numbers of at-risk kids we have in the system, we need to make sure we address their needs, and I think this is a good way of accomplishing that."
Some city officials said they favor the idea but are concerned about finding an extra $2 million to pay for it.
"Like every other request for extra funding, it will have to be considered in the budget process," said Alexandria City Manager Philip G. Sunderland. "But as it looks right now, it may just be a good idea whose time has not come yet."
Many educators say that more face time with teachers is an important part of increasing student achievement. Alexandria school officials said they are also considering a number of other tactics, including year-round schooling, and rearranging the school calendar, all of which experts say can help students learn.