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Flexible year boosts some

Profile image for By Britney Tabor / Staff Writer
By Britney Tabor / Staff Writer

Lake Dallas students can start summer early or get extra help

Students in Lake Dallas have an incentive that allows them to finish the school year eight to 10 days before their peers in other districts.

In the Lake Dallas school district’s Optional Flexible Year Program, students have a chance to end the school year early by meeting attendance and state assessment requirements.

For students who don’t meet those requirements, the program offers up to 10 days of intensive small-group and one-on-one instruction in areas where they’re struggling.

Students eligible for early release this year finished school May 24, and those who needed additional instruction completed the school year on Friday.

The district has used the program, which it refers to as Tier II, for five years. Superintendent Gayle Stinson said by e-mail that she’s witnessed its benefits for students in Texarkana and other districts she’s worked in, and she wanted the same benefits for Lake Dallas students.

Stinson said it’s impacted students in multiple ways.

“Due to the intensive remediation for state assessments close to the re-testing opportunities during the summer, students have been more successful and shown increased scores,” she said in an e-mail. “Additionally, students are assisted in meeting promotional standards and provided individualized learning opportunities for stronger mastery of grade-level criteria. Students at the secondary level have the opportunity to gain back course credits, therefore enabling them to remain on track for graduation.”

Stinson said the flexible schedule has resulted in high school students recovering 561 credits in the last three years, and she expects the credit recovery total to reach 700 for this past school year.

Jennifer Smith, who has a fourth-grader in Lake Dallas schools, said her son has participated in the program every school year but the one. She said the program allows a smaller learning environment, more one-on-one time with teachers and more time for studying for her son, who has some learning disabilities.

Smith said he first views the extra time in school as punishment, “but once he gets going into it, he actually enjoys it.”

While she doesn’t think the program has had any effect on his grades, it has improved his math skills, she said.

“I feel like he can just get the extra push before going into summer,” Smith said. “We like it. I mean, you can never get too much education, and I think the smaller environment helps.”

Parents from Lake Dallas commenting online said they favored the program. One parent wrote that it was “a great incentive” for getting out of school two weeks early, while another said her child “benefited greatly from small-group, intensive instruction.”

Meanwhile in Sanger, this school year was the last for the district’s flexible schedule program, officials said. The district started the program four years ago as a way to work with at-risk students in small groups two weeks out of the year and as alternative to summer school, said Jackie McBroom, assistant superintendent for educational services.

He said the district decided it would be best if students were in school for the required 180 days of instructional time, rather than having students eligible for early release miss 10 days each year. Under the standard school calendar, districts are required to have 180 instructional days.

McBroom added that with the state assessment changing in the last couple years from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, there was no way of gauging whether the district had reached its academic goals with students.

“We never had the data to tell if we were helping the kids we wanted to, so we decided to go back to our regular schedule,” McBroom said. “We feel it was effective, but we’re not sure in the end the pros outweighed the cons. I just never had the data that I really wanted because the testing changed.”

This past school year the district offered intensive instruction for students through the flexible schedule on Jan. 7-11 and last week, June 3-7. In previous years, intensive instruction was offered at the end of the spring semester.

McBroom said that when the district first modified its schedule for 2009-10, about half of the students needed intensive instruction. The number of students in the program this year has dropped to about a third, he said.

“I still think it’s educationally sound to help the kids that need it the most. Logistically it just doesn’t make sense for us anymore,” he said. “It worked out very well for us, but at this time, I don’t think it’s defensible to have kids miss 10 days of school.”

The Optional Flexible Year Program was initiated in the 2004-05 school year. Legislation passed in 2003 allowed districts to apply to the Texas education commissioner for approval to modify their instructional calendars.

School districts that receive approval may reduce the number of instructional days by no more than 10 days for students who meet requirements for early release and offer intensive instruction for students not meeting requirements. Districts must apply annually to participate.

According to the Texas Education Agency, the state approved 30 school districts in the program’s first year. The number of districts on flexible schedules peaked in 2010-11, with 217 participating. Since then, the number of participating districts has dropped, with 114 participating for 2012-13.

TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said the reasons for the decline are unclear. Rather than go through the state, some districts may be implementing programs of their own, she said.

Pilot Point is one of the Texas districts that no longer use the program. Pilot Point schools used a flexible schedule during 2007-08 and 2008-09, according to TEA documents.

Assistant Superintendent Dan Gist said the school calendar was modified 10 days at the end of the spring semesters.

Gist said that parents were concerned that the program labeled and separated students and that school officials felt it wasn’t effective in increasing state test scores for “lower performers.”

“I think, ultimately, we just didn’t see the actual gain we were hoping,” he said. “The academic gain just wasn’t there, and the whole reason for doing it is to see gains academically.”

The program has been discussed among district officials in Denton, but no formal discussion has ever been brought to the school board, Superintendent Jamie Wilson said.

He said school officials want to have students in classes for the maximum days allotted in a school year.

“The size of our school system really doesn’t lend itself to allow part of our students to finish early,” Wilson said. “In addition, we want to utilize every instructional day we can through the end of the school year.”

Argyle Superintendent Telena Wright shared Wilson’s sentiments, adding that “the percentage of students failing has not been high enough to offset the loss of instructional time for the other students.”

“That particular program doesn’t line up with the needs of the students in Argyle,” Wright said. “We need all those instructional days for all those students.”

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.