Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren on Friday approved a plan that will let 25 school districts in southwestern Minnesota start next school year before Labor Day.
State law currently forbids pre-Labor Day starts, but the districts say the early start could improve test scores because more days will fall before those spring-time test dates.
Redwood Area Superintendent Rick Ellingworth said the plan is an indication that districts have to try new things to improve achievement, even if that means going against tradition. He also notes the early start is just one component of a fairly wide-ranging plan.
The common calendar also will let districts take the same days off - to let them pool resources for professional development.
So far, the districts have pooled $160,000, which Ellingworth said will let them attract higher quality speakers and other curriculum for professional development that each district would not have been able to do with its own budget.
While the districts have a combined enrollment of more than 16,000 - each district is relatively small on its own.
"We can use those days and, by working together, improve teacher effectiveness," he said. "If that can be replicated in other places, then this is going to be a heck of a model."
Critics worried students in groups like 4-H might not be able to present at the State Fair. That one reason that some districts, including Fulda, opted out of joining the application.
"This proposal would still be giving students 172 instructional days," said Fulda school board member Theane Pagel, in a January interview with MPR News. "It just seems to be all about the test and how we can maybe improve scores on the test but not really give kids more."
But Ellingworth and other superintendents say participating districts will work with students to still give them the State Fair experience.
Despite the ban on starting school before Labor Day, the school districts will be allowed to do so because they're utilizing a different state law, which allows for "flexible learning year" programs. It's the same law a handful of districts have used to move to four-day school weeks.
Seagren had said in previous interviews that she found the plan promising and a potential model for others, but she also told the group they couldn't simply use the process as a way to get around the Labor Day law, even though Seagren personally opposes that law. The commissioner said the districts had to submit research and data to show how the change will help students.
SCHOOL DISTRICTS THAT WILL START ON AUGUST 23
JACKSON COUNTY CENTRAL
TRACY AREA (Tracy & Balaton)