More school days

Re-1 calendar mostly unchanged, a little longer

The theme for next year's Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 calendar: Don't rock the boat. Administrators have chosen to maintain the status quo, with some minor exceptions.

The calendar is to be adopted officially by the school board tonight. Unlike last year, when the bombshell dropped that the district was discontinuing the four-day experiment and returning to five days of class per week, there are only subtle tweaks to the 2013-14 calendar.

"The calendar committee had a big desire to give people consistency and a break from changes," said superintendent Alex Carter.

Quantity-wise, there are a few more class days, front-loaded at the beginning to maximize instruction time before standardized tests in the spring. The school year will begin on Aug. 21, a Wednesday, instead of the following Monday.

"I don't want to think of our district as being designed around tests, (but) I can't deny they matter. More contact days before the tests can only benefit the scores," Carter said.

Elementary students will now be in school 165 days, up from 162; middle- and high-schoolers will have 166 days, up from 164. Broken down by semester, that means 78 elementary days and 79 secondary days in the first semester and 87 in the second. Re-1 still trails behind most other districts for number of contact days and barely meets the state-required minimum threshold, but Carter said he can't justify a longer school year until pay raises for teachers are given. Teachers are contracted to work 179 days.

"Our main constraint (to expanding the calendar) is teacher salaries," said Carter, who supports longer school years.

Re-1 teachers did get a raise this year, but it was mostly negated by more expensive health insurance premiums. A pay freeze was in effect the prior three years.

Durango School District 9R, which has 175 contact days, is toying with the idea of a "year-round" model beginning in 2014-15. Instead of a three-month summer vacation, decried by some researchers as outdated and counterproductive to retention, 9R would implement a nine-week on, two-week off schedule, with about seven weeks off for summer (late June to early August).

Carter was a bit apprehensive about adding days in August, the second hottest month, because the school buildings lack air conditioning. He said the temperature inside Cortez Middle School reached a sweltering 93 degrees on one occasion last year. Swamp coolers are wheeled into computer labs to prevent the computers from overheating, but they aren't available for standard classrooms. Repair work this summer at CMS will include covering the black tar roof with a more heat-reflective white surface.

A common complaint this year, Carter said, was a string of four-day weeks in February. Parents thought it disrupted the learning rhythm of their kids. Next year students will have a stretch of full weeks after returning from their winter break until the end of third quarter in early March, except for federal holidays Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Jan. 20) and Presidents' Day (Feb. 17).

The semester cutoff also has been moved up to Dec. 20. Currently, students return in January from the two-week winter break for eight days of class - and final exams - before switching to new classes. They'll now be able to start after the holidays with a fresh slate.

The district is again off the entire week of Thanksgiving, after some consideration of holding classes Monday and Tuesday. Carter said the five-day break is welcomed by teachers and parents who travel far from Cortez to visit family.

Also being kept are early-release Wednesdays. During those afternoons teachers take part in professional learning communities, also called SEED teams. They give teachers time to collaboratively analyze student data and determine which teaching methods are most successful. Elementary teachers group together by grade, middle school teachers by pod, and high school teachers by subject area.

The calendar committee also adjusted professional development days to align with the rest of the San Juan BOCES region, which covers nine districts in Southwest Colorado. With common days, Carter said, teachers from across the region can attend workshops and conferences together to enhance their skills.

"It avoids (our teachers') missing important training. And it avoids paying substitutes to come in and teach our students ... which deprives them of precious contact with their (regular) teacher," he said.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com