Academic year could lengthen for some Wichita schools, district officials say

04/23/2013 6:22 PM

04/23/2013 6:22 PM

Some Wichita elementary and middle schools could be asked to adopt longer school days or years as part of measures intended to boost student performance, district officials said Tuesday.

Though details are unclear, district officials negotiating next year’s teachers contract, which begins Aug. 1, said terms of the contract day or year may have to change for the district to comply with requirements from the Kansas Department of Education.

So-called “turnaround principles,” set to take effect this fall for more than a dozen Wichita schools, could include longer school days, a longer year and additional professional development for teachers, said Terrell Davis, principal at Truesdell Middle School.

As part of its waiver from some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, Kansas identified 33 of its lowest-performing Title 1 schools – 13 in Wichita – as “priority schools.” The waiver requires those schools to implement interventions intended to boost student performance.

Wichita’s list of priority schools includes seven middle schools – Curtis, Hamilton, Jardine, Marshall, Mead, Pleasant Valley and Truesdell – and six elementary or K-8 schools – Anderson, Cloud, Mueller, Spaght, Stanley and Gordon Parks Academy.

The state also identified 66 “focus schools” – 15 in Wichita – that have the largest achievement gap between their lowest performing students and state benchmarks.

All 15 focus schools in Wichita are elementaries: Allen, Caldwell, Cessna, Enterprise, Franklin, Gardiner, Harry Street, Irving, Jefferson, Lawrence, Linwood, L’Ouverture, Pleasant Valley, Washington and Woodman.

Tom Powell, general counsel and lead negotiator for the district, said during contract talks Tuesday that language or terms in next year’s teacher contract may have to change if state funding is tied to turnaround measures at some schools.

“Extended year and extended day both are what we kind of need to talk about,” Powell said. “If we need to comply, with this money we’re getting and the rules we’re under … we may need to address it again.”

District spokeswoman Wendy Johnson said via text message Tuesday that lengthening the school day or year “is an early conversation to explore how to meet the needs of priority/focus schools,” but “there is not a specific concept on the table at this time.”

Between 1995 and 2003, several Wichita schools had a longer school day and school year, starting in mid-August and running through the end of June. It was one hallmark of the Edison Project, a private, for-profit company that operated some of the schools.

In 1995-96, for example, Dodge-Edison Elementary students went to school 210 days – 24 days more than today’s Wichita schools.

Teachers at Edison schools still were members of United Teachers of Wichita, but they worked under waivers that allowed them to work on a different pay scale than one agreed to between the school district and the union.

Cameras in classrooms

Also during contract talks, school district officials dropped a proposal to install cameras in special-education classrooms, citing a concern that the measure might be controversial.

The district had suggested electronic monitoring of special-education classrooms, “where students are not able to advocate for their own protection.” But on Tuesday, Powell moved to strike the idea from the board’s initial contract proposal.

“I had a question from the newspaper about what caused us to do this: ‘Was there any incident?’ ” Powell said.

“I really don’t think that does us any good to discuss details – was there an incident or wasn’t there an incident? … It seems to be controversial, and we really don’t want to start out these negotiation sessions on the wrong foot.”

The district’s intention in proposing video monitoring was to protect both students and employees “who may be wrongly accused,” Powell said.

“People get accused of things they didn’t do, so we’d really like to have this protection. … Sometimes parents overreact to something that’s happened. … I’ve seen incidents where the abuse occurs at home, but the accusation, then, they turn it back on the teachers.”

Neil Guthrie, director of special education for the district, is a member of the district’s negotiations team but did not attend Tuesday’s contract talks. He was not immediately available to answer questions about the proposal or current policies for monitoring classrooms.

Greg Jones, lead negotiator for United Teachers of Wichita, which represents Wichita’s 4,000 teachers, said he didn’t know why the proposal was made but tentatively agreed to drop it.

“I won’t belabor this at all, but we have had some times when kids come home with a bruise, and there’s a lot of upset by parents: ‘How’d they get the bruise?’ and stuff,” Jones told Powell. “And usually it isn’t the teacher at all, so I appreciate what your intentions were.”

Negotiations started Tuesday for a contract set to begin Aug. 1.

The teams spent the morning reviewing each other’s proposals in general and asking questions.

Tobacco-use testing

The district has proposed allowing tests for tobacco use as part of its random “wellness audits” of about 5 percent of employees.

Shannon Krysl, chief human resources officer, said some tobacco users claim they don’t smoke or chew tobacco and aren’t paying a required $50 monthly surcharge for health coverage.

“We always say to people that you have to be honest, and if you deny that you’re a tobacco user, we basically have been taking people’s word,” Krysl said.

But some employees have been caught smoking in school parking lots or elsewhere on campus – a violation of the district’s smoke-free-campus policy – and officials subsequently discover that they aren’t paying the tobacco surcharge, she said.

“They are using tobacco, they’re not disclosing it honestly, and it’s really hurting our health plan,” Krysl said. She said health costs for tobacco users are about three times that of non-smokers.

About 800 district employees pay the tobacco premium, she said. But studies show that about 23 percent of people use tobacco, which would translate to about 1,500 district employees, she said.

“As our costs continue to go up, we are trying to figure out how to avoid charging premiums to everyone,” Krysl said. “One of the ways to do that is to make sure that those who are not abiding by staying tobacco-free, that those people have to pay more.”

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