Group of schools says early start could improve performance

Worthington High School
The Worthington School District, enrollment 2,271, is the largest of the two dozen districts in southwest Minnesota that are joining forces in trying to get state approval for a 'common calendar' that will include a pre-Labor Day start.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Minnesota has long had a law that prevents pre-Labor Day starts, but education officials say student performance is too important to be limited by such a ban.

More than two dozen school districts in southwest Minnesota hope to start the next school year before Labor Day.

The early start, though, is just one component of a wide-ranging plan being developed that district leaders say will let them pool limited resources to improve education.

In all, 25 districts in southwest Minnesota have joined the application. That represents a combined enrollment of more 16,000 students.

"I know that it rubs against a statute that's been there for a while, but if we're going to get better, we have to be willing to try things differently and that's what this is really about," said Rick Ellingworth, the superintendent in Redwood Falls.

Ellingworth said the plan is not about finding a way around the Labor Day law, it's about better educating kids by joining forces. The early start is a mean to that end.

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The theory centers on standardized tests. Officials say they're the most-used measurement of performance, and Minnesota's MCA test is always in early spring.

"If we're going to get better, we have to be willing to try things differently. That's what this is really about."

So the theory goes, if you move some days from the end of the year to the beginning of the year more instruction will happen before those tests, which could mean higher test scores.

Another benefit being touted is the ability for these small districts to pool resources. The plan would align calendars with nearby colleges, including MSU-Mankato and Minnesota West, which would make collaboration easier for high schools and colleges.

Each district would also take the same days off, so teachers across southwestern Minnesota - not just from one or two districts - can merge their staff development. This already happens throughout Minnesota, supporters say, but not to this scale.

"We hope to have staffs throughout southwest Minnesota working together, speaking common language on student issues," said Bill Strom, superintendent of the Mountain Lake district. "And finding ways to improve student learning so that smaller districts will not feel isolated in terms of having their teachers knowing who they can and cannot work with."

The Mountain Lake district has an enrollment of 472.

Despite the ban on starting school before Labor Day, the school districts could still be allowed to do so because they'd be 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.

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The final decision on whether this "common calendar" proposal is approved or rejected will rest with Minnesota's Education Commissioner, Alice Seagren.

"I think conceptually, it's really good," Seagren said.

Seagren rejected a similar effort from these same districts earlier this spring because she said it needed more work. She said a better-focused plan this time could be a model for districts all over the state to copy.

"For small school districts that struggle to provide all the educational services by themselves, this provides a group or consortium that can gather and leverage all their staff skills," she said.

Seagren has long criticized the Labor Day law, but she specifically told the group they can't simply use this process to get around it - they must submit research and data to show how the change will help students.

Even so, not everyone's convinced. Plenty of students, for example - especially in southwest Minnesota - are in clubs like 4-H and FFA. Those students spend the weeks before Labor Day getting ready to present at the State Fair.

That's one reason the Fulda School Board recently opted out of the plan. Board member Theane Pagel has a lot of 4-H in her family history. Her one daughter still raves about working in the Miracle of Birth barn last year.

Pagel believes children who are involved in clubs like these already get better test scores. Opening school early is a tactic for which Pagel believes there is still not enough research to prove performance would improve.

"This proposal would still be giving students 172 instructional days," Pagel said. "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."

Another reason for not joining is the heat. Fulda schools have no air conditioning, and Pagel questions the learning capabilities of students sitting on the third floor of Fulda Elementary during the steamiest and most uncomfortable August days.

The districts that are part of the plan hope to submit their application to the state next week. If they win approval, they'll all start next school year on August 23, two weeks before Labor Day.

List of school districts that are part of the application

ADRIAN

BREWSTER

CANBY

COMFREY

EDGERTON

HENDRICKS

HILLS-BEAVER CREEK

IVANHOE

JACKSON COUNTY CENTRAL

LAKEVIEW

LUVERNE

LYND

MARSHALL

MILROY

MINNEOTA

MOUNTAIN LAKE REDWOOD AREA

ROUND LAKE

RTR

SLEEPY EYE

SPRINGFIELD

TRACY AREA (Tracy & Balaton)

WESTBROOK-WALNUT GROVE

WINDOM

WORTHINGTON