Lawmakers may reinstate 5-hour school day rule, but Elgin-area officials say they’d rather have flexibility

School districts in the Elgin area and across the state are rethinking what is defined as a day of school.

In the past, a school day was mandated by the state to be five hours of direct supervision by a teacher, and how the state funded schools was based on student attendance during those days.

In August 2017, the evidence-based funding formula was signed in to law, shifting the way state money is allocated to school enrollment figures and the number of students in need of extra supports.

Because funding was no longer tied to attendance, the law also opened the door to more flexibility in terms of where and how students received instruction.

Ralph Grimm, acting chief education officer at the Illinois State Board of Education, issued a Nov. 9 memorandum that said as a result of the new funding formula, an instructional day need not be confined to classroom-based instruction.

“Students learn in a variety of ways and settings. Districts may define student engagement and student learning in any number or combination of ways: classroom instruction, online instruction, independent research projects, work-based learning and internships, to name a few,” he noted in the memo.

Fearing schools might take flexibility too far, the Illinois Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, unanimously approved a measure to reinstate the five-hour mandate. Bertino-Tarrant is the former Will County regional superintendent of education.

State Rep. Fred Crespo has filed a similar bill in the House. The Hoffman Estates Democrat, who represents a portion of School District U46, called the removal of the class day language “accidental.”

“These questions were never asked, never vetted and this posed a lot of problems,” he said. “This bill is basically correcting something not intended when we passed (evidence-based funding).”

School districts could abuse the flexibility and still get state funding, he said. And it could pose problems for families who need a set start and end time for school to plan work and child care schedules, he said.

But some school administrators welcome the change and don’t want the five-hour mandate reinstated.

Indian Prairie District 204 Superintendent Karen Sullivan told a group of legislators recently that students today are involved in internships, job shadowing, and online or blended courses. “All those things don’t fit into a five-hour, neat instructional day,” she said.

With students having access to laptop computers, schools could offer e-Learning days instead taking the day off school because the weather or an election day, Sullivan said.

School District U46 is in the process of setting up its 2019-20 school year calendar, which could include as many as 11 early-release days — something that couldn’t happen if a five-hour school day was in place.

Melanie Meidel, U46 assistant superintendent for special projects, told the school board last week that students would be assigned digital learning work on those days that would free up teachers to do professional development work, collaborate on projects, grade assignments and conduct parent-teacher conferences.

“If they maintain this flexibility, it would be very interesting,” Meidel said. “My personal opinion? I think would be a very marvelous thing if we could consistently look at something each month conceptually.”

District spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the flexibility could be particularly beneficial as the district moves forward with its career pathways plan. In addition to classroom instruction, students could pursue other things related to their career goal, such as work-based learning opportunities outside of school, she said.

St. Charles District 303 Superintendent Jason Pearson’s position is similar to Sullivan’s. The possibility of redefining what constitutes class time opens the door to so many types of learning opportunities, he said.

“E-learning, blended learning, internships, field trips, dual credit, and dual enrollment are all programs District 303 hopes to continue to expand,” Pearson said. “A flexible school day provides increased opportunities for students and staff to engage in a variety of learning modalities and experiences.”

Crespo said he understands the flexibility school administrators are seeking but fears the General Assembly didn’t adequately discuss the issue before eliminating the five-hour class day. He plans to add language to his bill that could add some of the flexibility districts want although he’s not yet sure what the changes will be, he said.

“We have school districts that want this flexibility, I get that,” Crespo said. “But no one is disputing that when (evidence-based funding) was passed, there was no discussion” on how long an instructional day should be, he said.

Suzanne Baker is a reporter for the Naperville Sun.

Twitter @rafaguerrero14

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