Tuesday, May 17, 2011

TOP STORY >> Last day June 9 in PCSSD

Special to the Leader

Students in the Pulaski County Special School District, mark your calendars: Your last day of school is June 9.

It’s not likely what they wanted to hear.

The state Board of Education on Monday denied a request for a waiver of two days district-wide from the state standard of 178 school days. The board, however, granted waivers of one to three days to individual schools in the district, depending on their circumstances in the wake of storms and flooding in late April and early May.

Granting district-wide waivers and waivers to individual schools would have resulted in different closing dates and mass confusion, said Dr. Charity Smith, an assistant commissioner of the state Department of Education.

School will end for Cabot and Beebe public school students on June 3. The last day for Lonoke public schools is June 8 instead of May 22 because they have seven days to make-up (five for snow, one for electrical damage and one for flooding).

Arkansas set a standard – a minimum, actually – of 178 school days in 1983. Waivers are rarely requested – and rarely granted – because districts pad their school calendars with extra days on the expectation they’ll have to close at least a few days because of bad weather.

For closed days not built into the already padded schedule, schools routinely use holidays and spring-break days or occasionally meet on Saturdays to make up for any closed days. But when this spring’s storms flooded communities across the state or ravaged them with tornadoes and high winds, several school districts found themselves without the cushion of a few days and asked to be relieved of the 178-day standard.

As a result, the Board of Education met with a flood of waiver requests from across the state in the past couple of weeks.

Dr. Charles Hopson, superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District, said teachers, staff and students made a brave effort to get to school. While few schools in the district sustained physical damage – the roof of North Pulaski High School was blown off – students, staff and faculty simply couldn’t get to school, Hopson said.

“We tried as hard as possible to keep the district open, but in the end we had to close across the district (May 3-4) out of safety concerns,” Hopson said.

The district originally had a dismissal date of June 1 but moved that to June 7 with makeup days. Not getting a waiver for the entire district puts the date at June 9.

With the waivers, most schools in the district will have had 176 days of instruction this school year. With its damaged roof, North Pulaski High School will have had 175, and Baker Elementary and Lawson Elementary, 177 days each.

Mother Nature’s wrath had some state education officials thinking philosophically.

Before the board began considering the array of waiver requests on Monday, Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said the state should think how seriously it wants to take the 178-day standard. “If it’s a target, let’s change the 178 days. If it’s a standard, let’s stick to the standard,” he said, barring “extreme” circumstances. He called it a “moral imperative” to have students in school as long as possible.

Another state board member, Ben Mays of Clinton, pondered how public school districts came to have a spring break at all. “Years ago, you’d hear of spring break and you’d think of college students,” he said. “Maybe we need to rethink that.”