BR area schools ponder how to make up lost school days

Cutting upcoming holidays short, eliminating teacher training days and extending the length of the school day are among the ways schools in the Baton Rouge area are considering to make up three to five school days lost due to January’s winter storms.

Students returned to schools throughout the area Friday after three unexpected days off thanks to icy, below-freezing weather. Any time made up will have to occur between now and late May, when the 2013-14 school year ends.

Still, many school districts are in good shape because of extra time built into their school calendars, giving them the option of not having to make up every lost day if they choose. Louisiana requires schools to be in session at least 63,720 minutes — which works out to 177 six-hour days — and most have extra days and time in their schedules.

“All of our schools have more minutes than required, so we’ll have to go back and take a look at if we have to add minutes, if we have to add a day,” Livingston Parish Superintendent John Watson said.

School leaders, though, have an incentive to make up time quickly so students can better prepare for standardized testing that starts March 18 and continues off and on through the end of the school year.

“We are looking at how we can fit in as much makeup time as we can for state assessment,” said East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor.

He said he began floating ideas with staff Friday, including possibly adding 30 minutes to the school day and converting a teacher training day scheduled March 14 into a regular school day. Taylor said he’s against extending the school year past May 22, the last day of classes.

“It serves no constructive purpose to do that,” he said.

Standardized test scores are the biggest factor in determining the letter grades Louisiana assigns to all public schools. This year’s testing coincides with the first full year of implementing the Common Core educational standards in effect in 46 states, including Louisiana.

Private schools don’t have to undergo testing, but some, namely parochial schools, use public transportation and typically align their schedules to those of public schools.

“We’re going to work with EBR to come up with something,” said Melanie Verges, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

Verges said she’s been in touch with Taylor and has asked to be involved in any time makeup decisions. She said for practical reasons she opposes having school on March 4, Fat Tuesday, and has another objection about April 18, which is Good Friday.

“We will not go to school on Good Friday,” she said. “I can tell you that beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Taylor said he plans to get feedback from a number of stakeholders, mentioning the diocese but also the various groups that represent school employees, including two teacher unions. He said he plans to present some ideas to the parish School Board when it meets Thursday.

Converting upcoming teacher training days to school days is being considered by some local districts.

Pointe Coupee Parish Superintendent Linda D’Amico said she’s got an all-day training session Monday that will now be a regular school day but is still figuring out how to make up the remaining time lost.

Iberville Parish and Baker schools are considering longer school days.

Baker Superintendent Ulysses Joseph said he doesn’t think he’ll need to shorten Mardi Gras or spring break holidays.

“Teachers can get antsy when you talk about taking away a day off,” Joseph said Friday.

Central lost five days due to cold weather, and it may cut into vacation days as a result.

Central Superintendent Michael Faulk said his calendar calls for schools to be closed the full week of Mardi Gras. He said he might bring kids back to school late that week, after Fat Tuesday.

Ascension and Livingston parishes are both looking at turning half days to full days.

“Because of sufficient minutes and days built into the school year, the district won’t have to take away any holidays or go further into the summer,” said Johnnie Balfantz, a spokesman for Ascension schools.

In many cases, schools have special committees set up to figure out what to do.

“We are trying to find a way to balance making up the minutes without creating a hardship on our students, parents and employees,” said West Feliciana Parish Superintendent Hollis Milton.

THRIVE Charter Academy in Baton Rouge began making up lost time before this week’s storm even arrived. On Monday, the inner-city boarding school extended classes until 6 p.m. before busing kids home to wait out the weather. On Thursday, when other schools were closed, THRIVE students returned early and the school pulled together a late school day from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

“They weren’t thrilled,” said Executive Director Sarah Broome. “They said, ‘We are the only kids back in school. That’s not fair!’ ”

To make up for the lost instruction, the school is adding an hour to the school day for the next two weeks. Broome said every class is important and students fall behind when they don’t make up lost days.

“Losing three or four instructional days is really, really huge,” she said.

Advocate staff writers Ellyn Couvillion, Terry Jones, Robert Stewart and Steven Ward contributed to this story.