Minneapolis school officials are considering cutting the number of academic days by up to eight. It’s a strategy that provides immediate cost savings, but in a district with so many struggling students, school leaders must still find ways to give kids more or improved instructional time.
If they shorten the school calendar, the days in class should be longer — or more after-school, weekend and summer learning should be available. Of the district’s nearly 36,000 students, more than 60 percent are eligible for free- and reduced-cost lunch, about 18 percent are in special education and 22 percent are English language learners. Test scores at some schools are among the lowest in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. High-quality time spent on learning matters mightily for all kids, especially the neediest.
A recent survey of Minneapolis parents and district employees indicated approval of a shorter school year, as long as class sizes don’t grow. However, parents of color weren’t nearly as supportive of fewer days in class.
District officials are considering bringing what is now a 176-day year down to 168. That would still be three days over the state requirement. Minneapolis schools face a $33 million deficit for 2018-19, and administrators say they could save up to $1 million for each day eliminated.
The school board is expected to vote in January on eliminating the last two days of the current school year — a Monday and a Tuesday. Those June days have not been very productive, administrators say, so it may make sense to end the year on a Friday. Later in the year, the board is expected to decide whether to reduce the school calendar by up to six additional days.
To their credit, school officials say they are looking at other ways to improve learning, including a program similar to St. Paul’s Sprockets, in which the city sponsors transportation to link students to out-of-school activities. And they’re considering offering after-school, weekend and summer learning opportunities to reinforce and expand what is covered during regular school hours. Those strategies could be supported by different funding streams outside of the district general fund.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board generally favors longer school days and years. A wealth of good research has shown that academic achievement improves when students receive more instruction, not less. American children spend an average of 175 to 180 days in school, compared with 200 days in some other developed nations. Many U.S. schools likely would benefit from a year-round model that acknowledges academic, workforce and societal changes. Many American school calendars are still based on the antiquated agricultural model, when children were needed to help work farms during the summer. Students in countries with longer school years tend to outperform U.S. students on standardized tests.
That said, additional classroom hours are not the only solution for kids. Minneapolis schools and their families face some important decisions in the coming year. Students need and deserve quality instruction and out-of-school programs that support academic success. In the end, results should guide decisionmaking about school policies, including the length of the school year.