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Education experts say balanced calendar adoption best left up to counties

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In two years, county school districts in West Virginia may have adopted a balanced calendar.

Or, they may not. It depends on who you ask.

Education experts told media from across the state at the Associated Press' annual Legislative Lookahead that the state's public education system will likely change. 

Jim Phares, the new state superintendent of schools, said he hopes the Legislature and policy makers begin to understand the need for continuous education.

And that conversation needs to begin now.

"I think the first thing that I hope we're still not talking about but I hope we come to understand is policy makers at the Department (of Education) and lawmakers who sit in the Legislature understand you no longer can say that learning starts in August and ends in June," Phares said in the Feb. 7 discussion. "I think the technology that is around us an the world we live in dictates children learn 24/7."

That's not to say year-round school will be the norm across the state in two years. Rather, Phares said, he wants teachers, parents, the Legislature and officials within the Department of Education to realize learning should be supported throughout the year.

Currently, school is in session 180 days, as mandated by the Legislature. However, because of snow days, natural disasters and other unforeseen problems, students often don't reach that goal. The calendar includes five days for professional development an faculty senate meetings as well, so students are in class at minimum 175 days.

Phares pointed out it is difficult for many districts to reach the 175 day threshold, he said students obviously aren't learning if they're not in the classroom.

"I call it ABT-squared," he said. "Ain't been taught because they ain't been there."

David Haney, executive director of the West Virginia Education Association, said truancy is a huge problem in West Virginia because many students live in poverty and parents sometimes lack the skills to adequately support their school-aged child.

"In some parts of our state, its absolutely an epidemic," he said of truancy. "You can't teach the children if they're not in school."

Yet, he said he's not too optimistic the truancy numbers will decrease over the next couple of years. He said part of that is because the public is unsupportive of teachers and the education system as a whole.

"We constantly say how bad (schools) are," Haney said. "So the kids, you don't think they hear this? You don't think they tweet things about their teachers and have discussions at the ball games, etc.? We've lost the respect my parents instilled in me to go to school, respect my teachers and do a good job."

Solving those problems may take a shift in cultural attitudes. Terry Wallace, senior fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University, said that for every problem that can be identified within a school district, there is a place where those problems don't exist.

"Those aren't going to be the same answers in every community," Wallace said.

"In my view, this is not about a shortage of money," he later added. "We have enough resources across the education spectrum in this state to be as good as we choose to be."

However, transitioning into a balanced calendar isn't easy. Changing the way the school year is structured would affect teacher contracts, but Haney said the WVEA is willing to work with the Legislature and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office to figure out a solution.

"We have worked with the governor and the Legislature in the past in attempts to find an answer to the 180 day quandary," Haney said.

But teacher's unions aren't the only stakeholders. Cabell County schools want to transition into a balanced calendar and is hosting county-wide meetings to hear from parents, students, staff and faculty about potential issues.

"I personally believe Cabell County, right now, is doing it the right way," Haney said. "They're having a series of community meetings around the county talking to all the interested groups … to find how it will work best in Cabell County."

"We're very supportive of those types of things," he added.

Both Haney and Phares agreed a legislative requirement to move into a balanced calendar would not work. Phares said such a plan wouldn't work in all counties.

"I think the only thing we would do is suggest they go through that same type of planning process," he said of county boards of education.