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Carlton schools explore four-day week

Carlton superintendent Donita Stepan created a stir last week, when she announced April 3 to school district staff that a plan was being drafted that would move Carlton schools to a four-day school week as soon as next year.

On Monday, during the first of three hastily scheduled public hearings announced Thursday, Stepan reflected for the school board on what she told teachers and staff.

"I understand this is quick and I understand this isn't normally how we would do business, to move this quickly," Stepan said, describing a time crunch she said was created by the Minnesota Department of Education.

The state department lifted a moratorium on March 14 to allow districts to pursue a four-day week and wanted applications from districts by April 22. The commissioner of education has final say on whether or not a district can move to the shortened school week, something both Two Harbors and Silver Bay practice locally.

The Carlton school board expects to vote on the proposal at its board meeting Monday, April 15, following the third and final public hearing, which begins that day at 7 p.m.

The abrupt timeline means most school districts won't try for next year. Stepan was told by MDE that if Carlton pulls it off, it will likely be the only district considered for 2024-2025. There are currently six school districts in Minnesota that have a four-day week, and they all adopted it before MDE declared a moratorium some years ago.

Counterintuitively, the move is not being considered for cost savings. The school buildings will still be open five days a week.

"The reason we're doing it is because we're trying to live out our strategic plan that we put into place," Stepan said in an interview Wednesday.

Additionally, she said Monday, during the first public hearing, "I don't believe we're going to save a ton of money ... This isn't about money."

She stressed Carlton's District Advisory Committee met last year and formed a strategic plan centered around innovation, and one thing they considered back then was a move to the four-day school week.

Since MDE wasn't allowing any school districts to change to four days, the idea was dropped at the time.

"A flexible calendar allows us to do some of the things that we want to do," Stepan said. "It aligns with the idea of more real-world authentic experiences."

Regarding the prospect of consolidation with Wrenshall, Stepan said a four-day week would not interrupt those ongoing negotiations.

"Nothing has changed with that plan," Stepan said. "This plan does not affect the Wrenshall discussion at all."

Instead, Carlton would be able to "work out the kinks," and a new consolidated school board, once convened, would be able to approve whatever calendar the new district preferred, four days or five.

At the first public hearing, Stepan gave further details. Teachers and most staff would still have a five-day week. School hours on the days in session would be longer by 25 minutes for most students. No more early dismissal on Wednesdays. Sports would be unaffected. Students would have Friday off most weeks, but if Monday was a holiday, classes would be held on Friday. Free breakfast and lunch would still be provided to students on the off day.

Stepan anticipates no layoffs, although some staff, especially paraprofessionals, could be reassigned.

Total student days would decrease from 168 days this year to 143 next year. Teacher days would remain the same at 181. Total student hours would go from 1,125 this year to 1,036 for next. All these numbers are above the minimum required by the state.

Stepan spent most of the meeting on Monday talking about the benefits. Stepan hopes for better recruitment and retention of teachers. She hopes it will also help ease the substitute teacher shortage.

"I know I can't pay you as much, because we are small, but we've got some other opportunities that are unique," she said, explaining the rationale.

Family appointments can be scheduled for Friday with the hope that attendance will improve. Students will be better rested and can use the day off for extra academic help.

As part of the plan, child care for K-5 will be provided from school district facilities for the off days. If childcare is required on every off day, the cost to a family will be around $800 per year.

Meetings that used to take place after school can now be scheduled on Fridays, including individual education plans, conferences, and department meetings.

A second hearing was conducted Wednesday. Twelve people attended; four of them spoke. "Adding more time during the school day is going to burn out these younger kids. Maybe it would work for the older kids, though," said Theresa Luomanen, who also said the additional cost of Friday daycare is prohibitive.

Janelle Soukkala and teacher Ryan Schmidt really like the idea. Another woman wants to see more curriculum available for Friday childcare, in addition to arts and gym time.

Stepan characterized the overall public response as positive so far.

"We have a survey on our website, and right now that survey is showing about 86 percent of the people who have filled it out are in favor of it," she said. "We did have a couple people against it at the board meeting [Monday], but we've had emails coming in to us that are positive."

She also said after she "bombarded" teachers with the idea, their straight faces turned to smiles.

"We now emphatically believe I've got a good 98 percent of staff on board," she said at the first public hearing.

Residents are again invited to comment on the proposal during a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday at Carlton High School.

The board will vote on the matter at its meeting following the hearing. If the board approves the four-day week, Stepan said she expects the Minnesota Department of Education would rule on Carlton's application within 60 days. Find more information and/or fill out a survey at http://www.carlton.k12.mn.us.

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