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State board works to clarify school calendar policy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State school board members unanimously approved a policy Wednesday they say is intended to give districts more freedom when designing a school calendar, but they said they're worried there are still misconceptions among educators and parents about the bill's requirements.More than 180 comments were made in a month when the board put the proposal up for public comment in October -- "virtually all of which disagreed with some aspect of the policy," according to an executive summary of the new bill.The new version of Policy 3234 allows local school boards more flexibility to decide when students should attend school based on the district's individual needs, but it also holds them more accountable to provide at least 180 days of instruction and requires approval from the Department of Education.County school boards are now required to hold at least two public hearings before voting on a school calendar, and must develop countywide policies that ensure all time lost due to late arrivals, early dismissals and inclement weather is recovered.The revised state policy -- a result of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill -- also requires most faculty senates to meet during non-instructional days in order to prevent schools from canceling class for professional development.None of the more than 180 comments inspired any change to the policy before it was approved at the board's monthly meeting on Wednesday. Still, that's because the majority of those comments were misconceptions about the policy's intent, state Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares said."The general opposition was just from a lack of understanding," Phares said. "They believe that you're requiring them to go to year-round school, and that's not the case. They think it means the loss of professional development, summer breaks, extracurricular opportunities. There's nothing in the language that eliminates the loss of this stuff."While the policy allows local districts to choose when their students will attend school, it recommends the use of a "flexible calendar," suggesting that county boards may want to "seriously consider" adopting a school schedule that could reduce summer learning loss.
The policy suggests a year-round balanced calendar or a trimester configuration as possible options.But convincing principals, teachers and families the state is not mandating year-round school has been difficult."The balanced calendar is a big issue for people out in the public and we're hearing more buzz than we are comments. Lots of buzz," said state school board member Bill White. "...They think they're losing flexibility when in fact they're gaining flexibility. We have to somehow destroy some of these myths so that people understand we're giving them more autonomy."Assistant Superintendent Joe Panetta said the new state policy does not enforce any major new school calendar requirements for local school boards than had been done in the past, but it simply requires them to have official policies that reiterate guidelines that have always surrounded the 180-day minimum."Guidance documents," which include copies of the statutes and sample calendars, will be distributed to all county school boards to assist them in preparing for the upcoming year and "clarifies in more detail what the requirements of the policy are and emphasizes the fact that these are just options all local boards may consider," Panetta said.The deadline for submitting school calendars to the state Department of Education for the 2014-2015 year is May 1. All calendars will be reviewed within two weeks after they're received. Approval notices will be provided as soon as possible after their review so that school districts will be able to notify their staffs and parents, who could then plan accordingly.The members of the state Board of Education are: White, Gayle Manchin, Mike Green, Bob Dunlevy, Wade Linger, Lloyd Jackson, Tom Campbell and Tina Combs. 
Reach Mackenzie Mays at or 304-348-4814.
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