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Some Oklahoma districts want a shorter school year

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Under Oklahoma law, a school year must include a minimum of 165 days, and five days of professional development and two days of parent-teacher conferences can be included in that count. Most other states require 180 days of instruction.

But nearly one in five Oklahoma school districts failed to meet that minimum requirement last year, and seven districts requested continued exemption from the 165-day minimum at the March meeting of the State Board of Education.

Officials from several districts requesting the appeal, which mostly have four-day school weeks, said teachers are unwilling to work the extra days needed to meet the 165-day minimum.

“It’s very simple,” said Battiest Superintendent Tommy Turner. “We can spend a few days less and have high quality teachers, or I can have a hot body in there and spend more days.”

State law currently requires schools to provide at least 165 instructional days and 1,080 hours. Waivers are allowed for schools that meet certain criteria, including achieving certain letter scores on part of the state report card.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said there were “one hundred” school districts “that were below the 165 minimum,” but only seven were potentially eligible for an exemption in under state law.

The schools that requested the exemption were Bridge Creek Public School in Grady County, LeFlore Public School in LeFlore County, Battiest Public School in McCurtain County, Morrison Public School in Okmulgee County, Jennings Public School in Pawnee County, Roff Public School in Pontotoc County, and Antlers Public School in Pushmataha County.

But members of the State Board of Education have expressed concern that reducing the length of the school year even further would not serve students well.

State board member Estela Hernandez noted that a significant learning loss, associated with the COVID shutdown of in-person learning in 2020, has yet to be caught up.

“Whether it’s rural, urban, or otherwise, we have students who have been impacted by COVID-19 who have had learning loss, and we see that so broad,” Hernandez said. “And for me to get to approve less than 165 days, it’s hard for me to get there because our students need more, not less.”

In all classes and subjects tested by the state, only 24% of Oklahoma public school students were proficient or better in the 2020-2021 school year. This figure was down from 34% in the 2018-2019 school year.

State board members noted that candidate schools could keep four-day weeks while meeting the 165-day minimum by adding about eight additional instructional days, but school officials said teachers opposed it.

“The problem is going to be from the perspective of the teachers you’re adding to their time,” Morrison Superintendent Brent Haken said.

In a letter provided to the board, Turner wrote that he had “really good faculty members who told me they would leave if the schedule changed too much.”

He said teachers will not work in the school district if the school year is extended to 165 days.

“They just don’t come to work for us,” Turner said. “They will go elsewhere.

Citing figures from other countries, Turner suggested teachers’ salaries should be increased by “80% or more” to eliminate teacher shortages.

A letter provided to members of the LeFlore Public Schools Board of Trustees cited a 2021 study which found that most teachers “view the 4 days as a ‘professional perk'” and that administrators reported that a four-day school week’ helps in teacher recruitment and retention.

Since the 2015-2016 school year, LeFlore has provided only 138 to 146 instructional days, though officials said they met the minimum requirement of providing 1,080 hours during that time. Several districts requesting an exemption said they had reached 1,080 hours of instructional time without meeting for 165 days.

But if teachers move from one district to another because of the 165-day minimum, board members noted that those teachers would not get a shorter school year elsewhere because the minimum is the same statewide.

“Every teacher in the state will be required to work a minimum of 165 days,” said state board member Jennifer Monies. “I know there are districts competing for teachers…but each teacher will have to go 165 days.”

And teachers generally won’t find shorter workweeks in most other states, officials noted.

“I believe we are one of seven states, out of 50, that allow less than 180 (days),” said state board member Brian Bobek.

He also noted that the minimum days requirement was supposed to have already taken effect but was delayed due to the repercussions of the COVID pandemic.

“Everyone knew it was happening,” Bobek said.

Council members also expressed concern that exemptions could be granted based on outdated data. Because the 2020 COVID shutdown prevented state testing that year — and test scores are used to calculate school grades — no report cards have been issued in recent years. Thus, districts requesting an exemption from the minimum days requirement were citing data from the 2018-19 school year.

Even using old state report card data, Brad Clark, general counsel for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said a site in LeFlore District did not qualify for a exemption under state law due to poor performance on his state report card. The district has a D grade on part of its report card.

Jennifer Monies, a state board member, said she has reviewed “all ballots” from districts requesting an exemption from the 165-day requirement, and said she is open to exempting schools that “are content to knock it out of the park academically” despite a short school year.

“But it’s not,” Monies said. “I mean, most of the schools on this list are C schools.”

Sarah Lepak, a member of the state board of trustees, said she appreciates “the creativity” shown by districts that have used flexible schedules to simultaneously address staff challenges and student learning, but noted that “Oklahoma is so behind the times”.

State board member Trent Smith said he was “frustrated” with his own child’s lack of school days in Yukon, noting he felt “they out of school all the time” and that families have to fill the gaps.

“I personally think kids should be a lot more educated than they are,” Smith said.

The board unanimously rejected the requested waivers to the minimum school year of 165 days.