Pasco might extend academic year for 6 schools

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 30, 2013 

Students at underperforming Pasco schools may end up taking classes up to a month longer than other kids.

Pasco school administrators are suggesting making the school year longer at six schools -- Rowena Chess, Emerson, Longfellow, Virgie Robinson and Whittier elementary schools and Captain Gray Early Learning Center.

The extra time is needed to help students at those schools, which predominantly serve non-English speaking and low-income neighborhoods, catch up academically.

"They're learning English and not necessarily learning math or how to read," Assistant Superintendent Liz Flynn said at a recent school board meeting.

Board members have yet to vote on the proposal. Administrators said there are lots of questions to answer, such as how to pay for the increased instruction time, but they said it's clear the students need more time in the classroom to succeed.

"If we're serious about helping our highest need students at the highest need schools, we have to take our destiny into our own hands," said Superintendent Saundra Hill.

The five elementary schools are defined as "priority" schools by the state. That means that of all the schools statewide receiving federal aid for disadvantaged students, they are in the bottom 5 percent in math and reading scores. Captain Gray, which primarily serves kindergartners, feeds students to three of those elementary schools.

All the schools have more than 90 percent of their students receiving free or reduced price meals because of their family's economic status. As many as three of every four students at several of the schools are English language learners.

Flynn said while testing indicates students at the underperforming schools are learning, they are at a greater risk of losing knowledge during summer vacation, and that summer school programs don't provide the same benefits.

In addition, many students are beginning school with skills far behind their middle-class peers.

"Very few of our kindergartners are ready for kindergarten," she said.

The school year at the six schools would be extended to 200 to 210 days, or 20 to 30 days longer than a typical school year required by the state. It would affect all grade levels and all students at each school.

Board member Amy Phillips asked whether other districts had tried a similar approach, where the money would come from and if the district had looked at preschool programs to address the problem.

Administrators said extended school year hasn't been implemented elsewhere, though Flynn later told the Herald the Yakima School District had some of its students attending classes for a longer school year as part of a grant.

Hill said the district doesn't offer pre-kindergarten programs because the state doesn't provide money for it nor is there space in the district's already overcrowded schools.

Administrators haven't identified a specific way to pay for an extended school year, which would include extending teacher contracts, providing student meals and running schools for longer, but Flynn and Hill will be visiting with state lawmakers. The district also have to work around maintenance schedules, as some of that work happens in the summer when students aren't around.

"This state is not serving this community for early education," Hill said.

Board members acknowledged that there are students in need of more services. Board President Sherry Lancon said she recalled visiting a school and watching some kindergartners being taught how to hold a book.

Board member Ryan Brault, who lives near Virgie Robinson Elementary in east Pasco, said he often considered the advantages he had growing up and how his own children are better off than some classmates.

"I want all my neighbors to have the same opportunities my son has," he said. "We're going to have to make some tough decisions."

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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