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  Wednesday January 28th, 2015    

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Local high schoolers have fewer instructional hours (12/16/2012)
By Emily Buss

Secondary students in the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) system spend the least amount of time in the classroom annually among schools in the Big 9 Conference. With only 1,137.5 hours of teacher-student contact, the district is at the bottom of the list. At the top are the Rochester Public School students, who spend 1,417.6 hours in the classroom.

Earlier this month, the school board learned that problems with the current schedules at the middle and high schools may be playing a significant role in lowering graduation test scores in math.

One of the major drawbacks identified with the current schedule is that students take the math graduation test before completing all of the relevant math classes.

Last year, only 42 percent of WAPS 11th graders passed the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment-II (MCA-II) when they took the test for the first time in the spring. Students are currently required to pass the MCA-II in order to graduate, but the state of Minnesota has been temporarily giving waivers to students who don't pass the test and allowed those students diplomas. With the waivers set to expire, the 2012-2013 sophomores will have to pass the test in order to graduate.

Principals and school board members have long stressed the significant positive impact that adding 10 or 15 minutes to the school day could have on student performance. However, adding classroom time to the school schedules isn't as simple as adjusting the calendar.

Adding class times

means higher costs

WSHS teachers are contractually obligated to work 184 days, which includes time for teacher conferences and workshops. Of those days, teachers must spend 175 in the classroom teaching curriculum. WAPS Human Resources Director Pat Blaisdell said calendar days could be increased slightly without triggering contract renegotiations, but not much.

"Currently in the contracts, the amount of time they can provide curriculum to students is [a maximum of] 300 minutes a day, which equals five hours," Blaisdell said. "Obviously teachers will be in the school for longer than that because the rest of the time is used for class preparation, their lunch break, even passing time. But, contractually they can be teaching up to 300 minutes."

New union contracts will be negotiated in the coming months. However, with salaries and benefits making up the vast majority of the district's budget, adding even a little time to the school day could come at a large price tag.

"If you look at adding additional school days and go beyond how much we are spending for each school day, that's where I know it's going to be more than $100,000 a day in salaries," Blaisdell said. "It could be more than that, but I haven't calculated it out."

In 2008, contracts and salary rates were at the heart of a standoff between unions and district officials when a tutoring program was on the budget chopping block. The Dreams Program, formerly called SMART, was an after school program designed to help students who need added instruction in core curriculum subjects such as reading and math.

Two years into the program, a grievance was filed by the teacher's union demanding up to $65 per hour to teach in the program, rather than the $20 they had been paid. An arbitrator ruled in favor of the district in one regard: not requiring teachers be paid the higher wage retroactively. But, the arbitrator did require that the district pay the higher hourly rate included in the teacher contract if it wanted to continue the program, and maintain the added instructional time.

The decision nearly tripled the cost of the program. The Dreams program was eliminated.

Poor math scores could

be linked to schedule

The scheduling for the past four years shows that students aren't receiving instruction in a statistics and probability course that WSHS Principal Kelly Halvorsen said teaches skills which account for as much as 15 percent of the MCA-II test.

Principal Halvorsen recently briefed the school board on the current trimester schedule and said it could be having a detrimental effect on performance. The number of classes available per year prevents students from completing a probability and statistics course before taking the graduation math test in the spring.

"The district doesn't mandate the standardized test schedule, it is the schedule across the entire state," Halvorsen said. "I don't know why [the state] can't push back the date of high stakes tests like [the standardized test]. If they took the test senior year, there would be little time for remediation. And, the goal is for us to get the knowledge to the student, not to punish them."

Right now, if students do not pass the test the first time, they are allowed to retake it later in their junior year. Principal Halvorsen said that in past years, statistics showed a 2 percent passing rate for those retested before completing the missing course, but the number climbed to 17 percent when retesting was delayed until after the course was taken.

"I think the state is leaving it up to the districts to make sure that curriculum is delivered, and I'd say we need to focus on how we are going to do that," Halvorsen said. "I think it is our responsibility to make sure that is happening." 


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