Domino effect: Opponents to later school start claim decision hurts education, students

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Two weeks will make all the difference for Grand Forks Public Schools next school year. That's what some educators are saying as they anticipate how instructional time, testing, employment and other activities will be affected...

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Opponents to a post-Labor Day school start date for Grand Forks Public Schools say the change will have a negative effect on everything from instructional time to scholarship applications. (Grand Forks Herald graphic)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Two weeks will make all the difference for Grand Forks Public Schools next school year.

That's what some educators are saying as they anticipate how instructional time, testing, employment and other activities will be affected by school starting after Labor Day -- a roughly two-week delay compared with the district's traditional start date.

Late-start opponents also claim students will feel the impact with scholarship applications, preparation for college entrance exams and extracurricular activities.

After the Grand Forks School Board twice stood by its decision to have classes begin Sept. 8 and end June 8, teachers say they're frustrated because they felt their voice was largely ignored, especially after several school leaders expressed their opinion to the board.

The decision was notable. Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson, chair of the district's calendar committee, said it's the first time in 15 years the board didn't follow the committee's recommendation.


The conversation to start school after Labor Day is a recent one. But growing interest in keeping students out of hot classrooms led to a ballot measure in the 2014 election, when the proposed requirement for all state districts to start after the holiday was defeated.

As Labor Day in 2015 arrives especially late -- Sept. 7 -- Grand Forks is among a few districts that chose to start later. Teachers said the decision doesn't support students or education and creates "a domino effect" of scheduling challenges across the district.

Meggen Sande, a board member who voted for the late start and a mother of children in the district, said children are her top priority. Sande was also a member of the sponsoring committee that wanted the state to start school after Labor Day.

Parents, teachers, students and board members all had valid opinions, she said.

"Everyone is right in this situation," she said.

State district start dates

North Dakota districts are free to set their own calendar dates but traditionally start school in late August.


Several larger districts -- Bismarck, Minot, Fargo, West Fargo -- will keep that schedule, school officials said.
In Minnesota, all schools are required by law to start classes after Labor Day, but its Legislature is now considering repealing the mandate. It's one of a handful of states in the nation that prevent school from starting before Labor Day.

For the North Dakota districts that chose an earlier start, school officials said the calendar committee took staff, student and community input into consideration when setting the calendar, and most wanted to begin before Labor Day. Each district has stuck to the same general calendar for several years now, they said.

Bismarck started school after Labor Day in 2013-2014 -- which gave the community a preview of how it would work before the general election -- but popular opinion set a traditional start date for next year, said Renae Walker, director of community relations.

Grand Forks' calendar committee offered a post-Labor Day start because they wanted to present options people wanted, and there had been growing interest in that during the 2014 election, members said. Parents, students, staff and community members were surveyed to pick one of three options.

School board members didn't vote unanimously on the decision. In the first meeting, members voted 4-2 in favor of the late start, with three absent. At the most recent meeting, the board voted 5-4 to maintain the original decision.

"In my mind, it's a completed matter," said board President Doug Carpenter. "Administration is moving ahead to implement that in the best interest of the students."

Summer programming, employment and sports


Last week, more than a dozen Grand Forks educators and directors talked about the consequences of clashing schedules.

Disruption to summer elementary school and programs -- and losing some of the staff who run them -- is among the biggest concerns, teachers said.

The Summer Performing Arts program involves about 1,300 students throughout the year. Brad Sherwood, SPA program director and music teacher at Red River, said longtime staffers may quit in the summer because of scheduling conflicts with their primary jobs.

Dozens of program assistants and younger staff members attend college elsewhere, and if SPA doesn't start until mid-June, students don't want to wait to work for them, he said.

SPA already has lost a few students to scheduling because of this year's late start on Sept. 2, and they were picked up by a competitor in Fargo, he said. One program founder won't be able to stay with the program, which is a loss of a very specific skill set, Sherwood said.

"If it's going to affect us this year, it's really going to affect us next year," he said. "We didn't have to do this -- we chose not to. It doesn't support test scores. It doesn't support education. It certainly doesn't support programs in the summer."

Teachers who work during the summer also may lose employment. Scott Berge, a science teacher at Red River High School, works for community colleges and universities in the warmer months and is concerned he'll lose that work. Area businesses or schools have gotten used to hiring teachers at a certain time of year, and they don't have to wait, he said.

Shannon O'Connor, fifth-grade teacher at J. Nelson Kelly Elementary School, said he's now uncertain whether he can attend an important week of training. He works as the North Dakota and South Dakota state director for the Universal Cheerleaders Association, a big source of his income, he said.


The most important week of his year happens after Memorial Day, when he heads to Wisconsin to help train 300 to 400 instructors from the Midwest and figure out scheduling for the rest of the summer, he said.

High school educators say they're concerned about students who enroll in summer school and sports. Summer school ends July 8 for middle school and July 19 for high school. Several fall sports start Aug. 8, according to the North Dakota High School Activities Association.

Vyrn Muir, head football coach at Red River, said some students might not participate in sports because they have to give up almost a month of their summer, especially for teams that cut in the fall.

"Volleyball tryouts are at a certain time, and if they don't make tryouts, it's going to be pretty tough for them to make the team," he said.

Teachers also wonder if participation will drop in other areas. Eric Ripley, director of career and technical education, said he's curious if out-of-town students who travel for the district's vocational courses will commit for a class that lasts beyond their school year.

"Time will tell," he said. "We don't know what the impact will be."

Tests, dual credit classes and scholarships


Lost instructional time means less student preparation for tests and causes delays elsewhere, teachers said.

Allen Janes, math teacher at Red River, said the district's late start this year already cut five or six days of student preparation ahead of the national ACT test. Next year, there will be even fewer days, he said.

"The ACT is the biggest mandated test for all juniors, and that's set up across the state," he said. "Grand Forks is starting up to two weeks later than other schools. We have an academic disadvantage."

Red River sophomore Rebecca Rage said she's against the decision, especially as she prepares for the ACT which affects "college, scholarships and basically my life."

"It was great having a long summer and all, but as we've gone through the year, we're seeing how much (the later date) has changed things," she said.

Under the new schedule, classes also will go longer into December. This causes more work for employees at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, where Grand Forks students take dual credit classes, said Dan Driessen, director of the Center for Distance Education and Outreach.

Grades are due at the end of the semester -- the same for every North Dakota University System campus -- so if one high school ends the semester later, it affects when grades are entered into the system, he said.

"If there's a two- or four-day difference, it's not that big of a deal," he said. "But when it happens that much later, we just have to make sure that everything is in place."


This delay impacts students who take dual credit classes and apply for state scholarships, said Marilyn Ripplinger, counselor at Red River High School. About 25 percent of the school's students apply for these scholarships.

State scholarship applications, including transcripts, are due the first Friday in June. The process to prepare transcripts takes time, she said.

While Ripplinger has contacted Driessen and the state Department of Public Instruction to ensure students won't be penalized, the fact is, they're asking them to adjust deadlines for the district, she said.

Students who participate in multiple school activities might find everything hard to juggle. Rage, who is involved in music and theater arts, said the later start this year has made her current schedule "crazy."

She said she wants to gather a group of students to inform the school board of their disagreement with the decision.

"I'm going to do whatever's possible to let them know the students don't agree with this," she said. "If the decision is affecting our future, we should be able to have a say in it."

School board response

Some board members say they're ready to move on.

Earlier this month, Sande and member Dane Ferguson wrote an opinion column printed in the Grand Forks Herald. They say their decision was based on what people wanted -- 69 percent of respondents in the calendar committee's poll said they didn't want what the committee recommended, and other polling also indicated people wanted a later start date, they said.

Last year, the committee's poll gave only two choices and 65 percent of respondents supported a post-Labor Day start, they said. The measure supporting a later start in the 2014 general election won the support of 52 percent of the 16,647 voters at the Grand Forks district polling sites.

Some people have told board members they didn't honor the process of the calendar committee, and Ferguson said he takes issue with that. If the post-Labor Day option was so problematic, the calendar committee shouldn't have presented it, he said.

"As we know now, they were in favor of the Aug. 31 date," he said. "I would have loved to have gotten that feedback in those earlier meetings."

Still, the board did revisit the subject so the full board could consider it, he said.

In the local survey, respondents equally voted for the three options, and it was a no-win situation, he said. School will start six days later and end four days later, he said.

"An after Labor Day start will be challenging -- I understand that, I respect that and I totally sympathize," he said. "But I'm very confident our staff members and teachers can adjust accordingly and come up with creative solutions."

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