The committee which has been studying a possible alternative calendar for Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) presented its findings to the school board earlier this month.
Winona Senior High School Principal Kelly Halvorsen explained that there are a number of different calendar options out there, two of which have been studied by the committee. The first, called “45/15,” includes about ten more instructional days than a traditional school calendar, with students attending school for 45 days, then having a two-week vacation, and then repeating the cycle. Students in 45/15 calendar systems still have a six to eight-week summer vacation. Halvorsen explained that this calendar option would be more expensive because of the added instructional days.
The second option that was examined is called a “modified” school calendar. While it is organized in a way similar to the 45/15 schedule, it contains the same number of instructional days as the current WAPS calendar. Both types of calendars would begin on August 1. The "modified" schedule stops for a summer break on June 6 and the 45/15 schedule takes a break beginning July 3.
Halvorsen said the committee had visited and studied several area schools that use these alternative calendar options, including Sumner Elementary School in Austin, Minn., and Longfellow Elementary School in Rochester. Both schools reported higher student achievement under the new calendar, but Halvorsen said that studies show that alternative school calendars have the best results when they are offered to populations that generally struggle more on standardized tests—such as students from low income families, non-white students, and students with special needs.
For WAPS, there would be several costs associated with an alternative calendar system, no matter whether the change is district-wide or limited to a choice school at one location. Halvorsen told the board that if air conditioning were needed at school buildings that don’t currently have it, it would cost millions of dollars to install. The cost to add air conditioning at Jefferson Elementary would be about $5.6 million; for W-K, air conditioning would cost $5.3 million; and at Madison Elementary it would cost $3.6 million.
Halvorsen said that there is air conditioning at the Alternative Learning Center, at the Middle School and High School, as well as at Rollingstone Community School and Goodview Elementary.
Modified calendars are thought to increase student achievement because during a shorter summer break students have less time to forget what they learned the previous year. During the shorter breaks throughout the year, schools with alternative calendars often offer remediation for students who need extra help. Opportunity for remediation throughout the year can help identify problem areas early. But that means added cost for teachers and staff who must work during the breaks. Halvorsen pointed out there is some state funding available to assist with the cost, and said if the board comes up with a plan to pursue such a modified calendar, other funding sources can be explored.
Several board members said they would like to find out more about how such a calendar change could be implemented at WAPS. Board member Steve Schild said that he wanted to ensure curricular change was part of any future discussion, and warned that it was important that the board do some facility planning before looking at any specific plans for a new calendar at a particular school.
Board chair Greg Fellman noted that the price tag for adding air conditioning was more than half the cost of building a new, large elementary school, an option the board has discussed in recent years.
Board member Mohamed Elhindi said to improve student achievement, the district needs to find a way to add more instructional time. “At the end of the day we need more teaching and learning time,” he said.
Board member Jay Kohner said he agreed that the board should examine future facility needs before spending any money adding air conditioning to a school to accommodate a new calendar option. However, he said he felt the district could explore both issues at the same time. There might be a scenario that would work with the resources we have now, he said, such as adding a modified calendar program at the Alternative Learning Center.
Board member Ben Baratto, who is a member of the calendar committee studying the modified schedule, said he agreed with Elhindi and wanted to see some scenarios for how a different calendar might work. Maybe we can afford them, maybe we cannot, he said, adding that sometimes when budget cuts are around the corner, board members tend to think only of what the district cannot do. This is a time when we should think about what we can do to help students succeed in the district, Baratto stated.
Elhindi said he wanted the committee to identify where the populations in the district are that could benefit most from a modified calendar, such as low-income and special education students. He said he didn’t want scenarios that simply tried to fit the program into buildings that currently have air conditioning, but wanted the committee to see the ways that the district’s current calendar system could be altered to reap some of the benefits that have been found by districts that have switched to an alternative calendar.