AJUSD Governing Board Opts for 5-Day Schedule

District votes 4-1 to implement Calendar Advisory Committee’s secondary choice for 2018-19 school year; “modified 5-day” schedule includes shorter days, longer fall & spring breaks, shorter summer break

By Dana Trumbull

The Apache Junction Unified School District Governing Board voted 4-1 at the February 13, 2018, Board meeting, to move the district to a 5-day, modified schedule for the 2018-19 school year. The first day of school for the coming year will be July 24, 2018. Jodi Ehrlich, Dena Kimble, Mike Weaver and Cami Garcia voted in favor. Board member Christa Rizzi voted against the change.

Board President Jodi Ehrlich explained her vote, “The original intent for the 4-day week was teacher retention, but it didn’t change markedly… it might have changed by 2 or 3%. Attendance, [substitute teacher] usage – we tracked all of those markers… and there was an improvement that first year, but by year three, the differences were immaterial.

Board Member Dena Kimble agreed, “As much as my daughter likes the 4-day, I feel I have to do what’s best for the students. For me, a quality education is the most important thing. The way we’re going on the 4-day right now, we’re never going to get there.”

Several parents spoke out during the Public Comments period in favor of the return to a 5-day schedule, citing students’ long days, exhaustion and lowered performance. “My daughter tells me ‘everything just feels so crammed; I feel like I’m not getting it,’” said Jenny Powell. “From an education standpoint for my children, please, please consider what is fair for their future.”

Kathy Allen’s daughter, however, has thrived. “My daughter’s attendance has improved. I’ve also seen better comprehension in her classes, which we all believe is due to the extended class periods. We’ve also seen an overall improvement in her attitude toward school. Mornings go a lot smoother on 4-day.”

Many members of the Calendar Advisory Committee used the opportunity to remind the Board of the long hours of research that were behind their 4-day recommendation, including parent and staff surveys (60.43% of the 930 parents who responded to the survey were in favor of the 4-day schedule, while staff response was 89.83% in favor of the 4-day). Their vocal displeasure during Board discussion, as one after another of the Board members indicated their leaning, became somewhat rowdy for the normally staid proceedings, with one committee member calling the decision, “a slap in the face.”

AJHS teacher Niki Smith summed up a fear shared by many, “With the teacher shortage in Arizona, teachers can go anywhere else, work a 5-day week and get paid more money. I could go to Queen Creek and get $8,000 more. The 4-days here is a perk. I love AJ and I would hate to see this decision tear our district apart.”

The committee’s recommendation to continue a “4-day traditional” schedule was presented to the Board in December. [Find the 12/27/17 coverage in The News HERE.] The academic calendar was similar to the current AJUSD schedule; however, four days were added to the school year to allow the instructional days to be shortened and to provide for later start times. [View the recommended 4-day academic calendar HERE.]

The committee also provided a second option at that time: the plan the Board adopted on Tuesday for the 2018-19 school year. The “modified 5-day” schedule added Fridays back into the school week, shortened academic days, increased fall and spring breaks to two weeks and maintained the two week winter break. Although the 5-day calendar is referred to as a “modified year-round” schedule, the options for 4 and 5-day calendars both included an eight week summer break. [View the approved 5-day academic calendar HERE.]

Following the Calendar Advisory Committee’s December presentation, administrative staff followed up in succeeding meetings with additional presentations in direct response to Board questions. Start and stop times (bell schedule), professional development for staff, the addition of Parent-Teacher Conferences at the junior high and high school level and additional comparative data with statewide and neighboring districts (schedules, academic achievement, etc.) were among the topics the Board had requested for further exploration after the committee’s recommendations were heard. Among 4-day districts in Arizona, only one exceeded the state average for the percentage of students passing both the English language and math portions of the AzMERIT test. That district is Hillside; a district with a total enrollment of 19 students. Saddle Mountain, with 1,099 students, matched the state percentage in math, but fell short in ELA. Notably, most 4-day districts are considerably smaller than AJUSD.

Board member Cami Garcia, a real estate broker and avid community volunteer, expressed her concerns, “Listening to parents speak, whether by voice or email, brings me back to three years ago when the decision was made to go to the 4-day. Many teachers spoke on behalf of the 4-day, but then left because [a job in another district] brought more money in to their families. The whole goal was to attract and retain teachers.

“We were hoping for higher test scores and increased enrollment, but the enrollment has continued to decline. Many families left because of jobs or school closures, but so many families told me as a volunteer, in so many different ways that they left because of the 4-day.”

Approximately 100 AJHS students gathered at the Administrative Office on Wednesday, 2/14 to protest the change to a 5-day school schedule for the 2018-19 school year.

Board member Christa Rizzi shared a different perspective, “One of the things that I do [in my business] is rent U-Hauls, so I talk to a lot of people that move, and a lot of times I have the opportunity to ask them where they’re moving and why. What I’ve heard overwhelmingly is that people are moving to Queen Creek and San Tan because the housing costs in AJ are too high, and in Queen Creek or San Tan Valley, they can get a better bang for their buck. Their reasons were not related to the school district.

“I understand that the former board did not go to the 4-day to save money. It was to offer an additional benefit to staff. We have to find a way to be competitive. We are not getting money from the governor as he promises. It’s just not happening. And the 4-day was a way to do it…

“I have a concern with making a promise that we’re going to pay [staff] more. I want to know that we have something in place to make sure that our employees and our staff are paid what they’re worth before we take away their one last reason to stay in the lowest paying district in the East Valley.”

A discussion of the salary schedule and plans to route savings from other cost efficiencies within the district to teacher and staff salaries will be discussed at the February 27 Governing Board meeting. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Cruz told the Board to anticipate recommended increases for teachers and support staff as funds become available. Administrators, however, will not share in the increase.

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