2012-11-29 / Front Page

School District Reclaims Days From Winter Break

By Stephanie Petrellese

At a special meeting held on Monday evening, the Garden City Board of Education unanimously agreed with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Feirsen’s recommendation to modify the 2012/13 school calendar to make up for the instruction time that was lost due to Hurricane Sandy and the nor’easter.

“I think we have all been considering how to respond to this natural disaster, and I don’t believe we are going to get back to the exact number of days that we had before, so we are going to have to make some modification and some adjustments with our staff, with our parents, with our community,” said School Board President Colleen E. Foley.

The school board agreed to reclaim February 20, 21 and 22 as instructional days, which will bring the district back to the 180 calendar days required by the state in order to be eligible for state aid. The school board also agreed to designate Tuesday, Feb. 19 and Monday, April 1 as snow make-up days, which will be used only if the district needs to use a snow day due to inclement weather.

“We are in an unusual situation because of the days we lost due to superstorm Sandy,” Dr. Feirsen said.

The superintendent explained that the district lost seven days due to the hurricane and nor’easter. Since the four parent-teacher conference and superintendent’s conference days on the district’s calendar can be counted toward the state’s requirement, the district is left short by three days.

According to state education law, the 180-day requirement can be reduced by up to five days with a waiver granted by the state education commissioner. Dr. Feirsen explained that several upstate school districts were granted waivers in June after last year’s Hurricane Irene. However, the same regulation requires that school districts must first attempt to recoup the days, including through the use of vacation days. State law dictates that federal holidays, with the exception of Washington’s Birthday, also known as Presidents Day, cannot be used as instruction days.

An act of the State Legislature would be required for school districts requesting dispensation of more than five days. One upstate school district had to go beyond the five days and request legislative action, according to Dr. Feirsen. The district received approval in June.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to expect anything from the state legislature,” Dr. Feirsen said. “And it seems reasonable that they would wait to the commissioner acts, and it seems reasonable that the commissioner won’t act until we act.”

School Board Vice President Barbara Trapasso was absent from Monday’s meeting, but the four trustees in attendance were all supportive of the calendar adjustments. Trustee Angela Heineman cited concerns with making up the quality of instruction that was lost.

Dr. Feirsen responded that Election Day was used as an instructional day and he will ask that March 13, which was scheduled as a parent-teacher conference day, be used instead for instruction. School principals have said they will try to limit the time students spend outside the classroom, and will consider eliminating field trips and special assemblies. Exam weeks may be rescheduled so more time is spent in the classroom.

Heineman said she realizes the importance of staff development, but asked if efforts were being made to reduce the time teachers spend outside the classroom. Dr. Feirsen said administrative staff has already discussed this issue and agreed that anything deemed as non-essential will be eliminated. The su- perintendent said administrators are scrutinizing every possible way to minimize learning disruptions.

Dr. Feirsen cautioned against eliminating all staff development as the district must keep on top of mandates such as Common Core Learning Standards and the new assessments. He explained that the CCLS significantly changes when units are taught and the resources and materials that should be used.

“There are some things, frankly, I don’t think we can do without, in terms of staff development because we were always seen as one of the leaders in being ready for the Common Core, and to eliminate them altogether, I think puts us behind the eight ball for the future, so it’s kind of a rock-and-a-hard-place choice,” he said.

Parent-teacher conferences will be rescheduled this month, Dr. Feirsen announced. He emphasized that parents can always request a conference with their child’s teacher. The teacher’s union has expressed a willingness to cooperate with adjustments that have to be made to accommodate conferences after school or in the evening. The middle school is eliminating team meetings with parents as a way to gain more instructional time. Dr. Feirsen said some of the meetings will be rescheduled.

Teachers will not receive additional compensation for working on Feb. 20-22. They are annual employees and are not paid by the day, according to Dr. Feirsen.

Garden City resident John Campo, whose son attends Garden City Middle School, agrees with the board’s decision to recoup three days from winter break. He expressed concerns with the district’s efforts to get middle school students caught up since they lost 10 days of instruction due to the lack of electricity at the school. Campo asked what would happen if school was in session on Saturdays.

Dr. Feirsen explained that besides the labor agreement issues involved, the state education department would not count them as attendance days. Therefore, they could not be applied toward the 180 days required for the district to receive state aid.

“Are we here because of state aid, or are we also here because of the education of our children and what’s transpired and how they have all been disrupted by this?” Campo asked.

“Sir, we are here for our children,” Foley responded. “This board puts in tremendous time for our children.”

Foley said the board is making its decision now so parents can plan accordingly. The district will not be able to make up each day lost “one-for-one,” but is attempting to do the best it can to make the most out of each instructional day.

Campo asked why Dr. Feirsen did not recommend that Feb. 19 be designated as an instructional day and deal with making up any snow days if one is actually used. The superintendent responded that not planning for a make-up snow day would possibly affect the spring recess, which would also cause disruptions to people’s schedules. Adding days to the end of the school year in June may not count toward the 180-day requirement.

Garden City residents Bruce and Patricia Chester have a daughter attending Garden City High School. Bruce suggested the school district use four days of the winter break as instructional days, and then take any snow days used from the spring recess. Patricia cited what several other school districts she considers of similar caliber are doing to compensate for the loss of instruction due to the storms. Foley cautioned that every school district’s calendar is unique and really cannot be compared.

Garden City resident William Holub asked if the state regulation requires all schools in a district to have 180 days of instruction. The middle school will fall a few days short.

“I think average-wise it is not going to have a tremendous impact,” Dr. Feirsen responded. The state asks for district-wide enrollment figures, not enrollment for individual schools.

Holub also expressed concerns that there is enough instruction time provided for his eighth-grader and classmates to be able to perform well on Regents examinations.

Dr. Feirsen responded that in some years students lost instruction time due to several snow days. “In some ways, although this is a very unique set of circumstances causing us to have this conversation, and certainly ones in which we never want to see again, the notion that we have reduced the number of calendar days to 180 is not a novel situation for Garden City students.”

Dr. Teresa Prendergast, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said administrators are considering the possibility of increasing the number of Regents exam review days. She also plans to recommend providing review courses for Advanced Placement examinations.

Former PTA president Gail Madigan attempted to allay parental concerns that their children will not have enough instructional time to be properly prepared for Regents or AP exams. According to Madigan’s experience with her children, there has always been enough time to cover the necessary material.

Foley emphasized that there is “no perfect solution” to the issues being faced by school districts affected by the storm. She is grateful that no school buildings in the district sustained major storm damage, and the majority of staff have been able to return safely to their homes.

“None of us wanted this storm, but we are dealing with it,” Foley said. “This is a viable option on the table for us to seriously consider and I hope that the students come to school those days because teaching will be done.”

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