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Top Indiana schools gaining schedule flexibility

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ERIC WEDDLE

Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A new Indiana law that allows some high schools to do away with some of the state’s calendar requirements is bringing praise from area superintendents but questions from the state teachers union.

The flexibility lets high-achieving school districts or individual schools break free from some state regulations to design their own classes, professional programs and schedules for top students without approval by the State Board of Education.

In an Indiana General Assembly session with more than a dozen education-based bills, the proposal received relatively little notice during hearings or when it was signed by Gov. Mike Pence last month.

“I think this is considered to be the next evolution of the education reform movement,” said Sen. Mike Delph, a Carmel Republican who co-authored the bill and says it rewards schools exceeding state education requirements.

“We’ve spoken repeatedly about the under-performing schools and schools systems and now we are giving the spotlight to the high-performing,” he told The Indianapolis Star.

Carmel Clay and Zionsville schools qualify for the exemption and are planning to develop college-level curriculum for students and retool the school-day schedule for some.

The lack of regulation allowed under the law concerns the Indiana State Teachers Association, which supported the initial version of the bill and wanted to see it discussed further in a summer study committee. But after amendments allowed any school to seek the flexibility through a yet-to-be defined waiver system, the group opposed it.

“The bill changed and we now have this high school redesign out there that is created by a few sentences, and we don’t know where it is heading,” said Gail Zeheralis, director of government relations for ISTA.

"It says, for the first time, that any amount of time per day constitutes a day. We are basically saying you don’t have to go 180 days, and those are pretty big statements to be making without a thorough discussion.”

The law, to take effect July 1, gives school districts and/or individual high schools that earn a top rating in the state’s A to F scale the ability to create their own curricula and technical training and be free of some regulations. Requirements like ISTEP, the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress exam, do not change.

Instead of requiring 180 instructional days for the school calendar, the law now requires 64,800 minutes of instruction and learning time.

Because it doesn’t require how many hours constitute a “school day,” a student could spend only a few hours, or less, in an activity administrators have approved.

Schools that don’t have an A rating are still bound to provide at least six hours of instructional time per day in Grades 7 through 12.

Those schools could request a waiver to receive the flexibility. The state board has until Nov. 1 to submit the criteria that would be approved by lawmakers next year.

Jeff Swensson, whose last day as Carmel Clay superintendent was Sunday, was a driving force in creating the bill.

An A rating, he said, becomes even more of an aspirational goal as schools can then take control of their curriculum once reaching it.

The law also levels the playing field with charter schools, which are not bound by the same regulations as public districts.

“One of the things we found before this law was we were met with a brick wall,” Swensson said. “We were told, ‘No you can’t do this, we can’t grant you this or that waiver.’ “

He said Carmel is planning to offer credit-transferring college classes taught by state university faculty.

That could lead to restructuring the school week for students who take those courses. A student could take three-hour courses on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and then work an internship or attend other classes on Tuesday and Thursday.

"This is a major improvement and engagement on flexibility on public education,” Swensson said. “I think the cool thing about it is it allows every school to aspire to this. We are being trusted to engage in this. Here is a bright spotlight.”

A school can lose its flexibility if it drops in grading during the state’s annual performance evaluations.

Delph is not worried about principals or superintendents creating unique curriculum and then sliding in academics and college preparation.

“The family culture will not allow a school or school system to try new things and fail,” Delph said. “They will either improve or go back to the way things were before."

 

 

 

Posted 6/10/2013