By Sarah Mansheim
Greenbrier County public school students returned to school last Monday, returning for their “second first day of school,” after breaking for the State Fair. This unusual schedule reflected the statewide mandate that all public school students attend 180 days of school each year. While the mandate has always been in place, the 2014-15 school year was the first time it was actually enforced, and many counties, including Greenbrier, were left scrambling to meet the mandate by keeping students in the classroom well into June.
The struggle to achieve 180 instructional days is due to the excessive number of snow days many counties have, thanks to the miles and miles of back roads throughout the Mountain State. Greenbrier County Schools missed 15 days due to snow and ice last winter.
Greenbrier County Schools Superintendent Sallie Dalton said that breaking for the State Fair is a must, no matter what. In addition to showing livestock all week, many employees and students work at the fair every year.
“The West Virginia State Fair is an important economic tool in the Greenbrier Valley,” she said. “In order for the fair to run they have to have employees, and I have a feeling a lot of them come out of our ranks.”
She also said that an early August start date was preferable to keeping the kids in school late into next summer.
“It’s easier to start earlier than stay later,” she said, acknowledging that the Aug. 6 start date did take many Greenbrier County families by surprise.
Last spring, the county conducted an online survey and two town hall meetings to gauge what families, staff and faculty members wanted most out of the school calendar. The verdict? Most people wanted things to remain largely the same: a long Thanksgiving and Christmas break with the possibility of reducing spring break should snow days pile up.
Thanks to the input, and the necessity of letting school out for the fair, Dalton and the rest of the board of education created a calendar that would accommodate the State Fair schedule, a full Thanksgiving break (widely regarded as “hunting week” by staff and students) and Christmas break. Spring break will be reduced as necessary. But, that’s not all Dalton did.
Last spring, she joined several other counties in a request to the West Virginia Board of Education (WVBOE) to issue a waiver allowing the county to not fulfill 180 instructional days, particularly asking for days declared by the governor as “State of Emergency” days, to be waived. All waiver requests were denied.
More importantly, Dalton, along with other members of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators (WVASA), asked the state legislature to rewrite the law to allow schools to count accrued instructional minutes, instead of instructional days, to determine classroom instructional time.
Dalton explained that the WVBOE determines how many minutes school should be: 315 minutes for elementary students, 330 minutes for middle schoolers and 345 minutes for high school students. Dalton said that every school in Greenbrier County has more minutes per day than what is required under state policy.
“That was started many years ago, in 1977 or ‘78. We had a couple bad winters, and administrators began lengthening the school day to make up for snow days” in Greenbrier County, she said. Over the years, the days have been lengthened a bit more. Therefore, she said, even if students aren’t in class for 180 days, they are still getting the same amount of minutes of instructional time as other West Virginia students who have shorter days but attend school 180 days a year.
While there was a lot of support in the legislature for allowing instructional minutes to count toward classroom time, in the end, the law did not pass.
But, she said, she hasn’t given up: she and the other members of the WVASA will continue to lobby the legislature for a change in the law.
Two state senators have already taken up the cause. Sen. Daniel Hall and Sen. Jeff Mullins, R-District 9, who represent part of McDowell, Raleigh and Wyoming counties, announced this week that they are championing accrued instructional minutes in the in the upcoming legislative session.
Next spring, depending on what mandates are handed down from the legislature and the state board of education, the 2016-17 calendar will be made. Whether it will include another awkward start – an early August start day followed by a long break for the fair – remains to be seen. What Dalton is sure of is that the schools’ mission will be carried out regardless of the calendar.
“Regardless of the calendar, what we’re going to do in Greenbrier County is educate kids,” she said.