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Galax to study year-round school

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So long, summer? School division will look at possible change to schedule.

By SHAINA STOCKTON, Staff

Grant funding awarded to Galax City Schools will allow the school board to look into the possibility of a year-round curriculum. As a stipulation of the grant, the board will have to make its final decision about the curriculum by next fall.
In the interest of providing students with resources to succeed academically, the Galax City School Board has looked into several options to improve the curriculum.
At the board’s Sept. 10 meeting, Schools Superintendent Bill Sturgill and Assistant Superintendent Rebecca Cardwell announced that the school division would receive a grant to fund a study of another possibility: having classes throughout the year.
Research shows that students in the low socioeconomic subgroup suffer the most from time off from school. “We want to find opportunities to prevent that learning loss,” Sturgill said.
Diverting drastically from traditional school calendar, a year-round curriculum typically breaks summer vacation and long semesters into smaller groupings throughout each year, educators said. Schedules like these seek to improve academic achievement by reducing the amount of “learning loss” during summer months, and reducing student burn-out during the longer semesters.
In an interview with The Gazette, Sturgill and Cardwell stressed that they are only studying the possibility of year-round school at this point, and that no decision is being made until next year.
“Taking advantage of this type of grant is another example of Galax City Schools trying to stay ahead of the game and trying to find and discover all opportunities that will benefit our students academically,” Sturgill said.
Cardwell, who wrote the grant proposal to the state earlier this year requesting $30,000 for the study, had heard of the grant’s approval earlier that week. However, she was still waiting last week for official word from the Virginia Department of Education, she explained to the board. “This is time-sensitive though, because the deal with the DOE is that if we decide to implement a year-round school, we will have to commit to that by next fall,” she said.
To make the most out of the months they have, a committee has already been formed to begin collecting the necessary data. “We just had our first meeting, where we talked about the parameters of the grant and began to brainstorm and determine [the committee’s] first steps,” Cardwell told The Gazette.
When asked what the committee will be looking at over the next year, Cardwell explained that a number of resources will be used to determine what is best for the locality. “There are things that we have to be sensitive to, such as child care and sports schedules. We also want to be sensitive to family time,” she said.
The committee will draw data from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s 134-page review of year-round schools, which was submitted to the governor and the General Assembly in October 2012.
 Cardwell pulled a page from the report as an example of what year-round school schedules might look like. “There is a variety of schedules that can be considered,” she said, and these programs can be tailored to fit an individual school’s needs.
She pointed to a common schedule. “Here, students go to school for nine weeks at a time, and have three weeks off in between,” she said. She pointed to another. “This one is 45 days on, and 30 days off... There are a number of ways that can be considered that would fit [our local needs].”
Another option, she said, would be to maintain the school’s current schedule almost exactly like it is now, and add an optional summer program filled with interesting activities to help keep struggling students from falling behind during summer months. “We would have enrichment sessions in art, science-based outdoor labs, physical fitness sessions, strength training, individual sports, educational-based field trips, college visits, things of that nature,” Cardwell said. “We would hope that the activities would be engaging enough to inspire our students to participate.”
In addition to researching the report, Cardwell confirmed that the school will correspond with each of the five divisions in Virginia that have year-round schools, to learn about their success rates.
More importantly, Sturgill and Cardwell both emphasized the importance that the community’s opinion will have on their decision. “We plan to have surveys that parents and community members can fill out, and we will have committee forum meetings, where we encourage people to come in and offer their input,”  Cardwell said. “A large part of this process is to involve the parents, as well as the community.”
Cardwell added that student voices will also be heard during this process.

In other action, the board:
• approved two overnight trips, including a literature festival in Charleston, S.C., and a trip to Washington D.C. in April for the National Junior Honor Society.
• considered an audit of school activity funds, then voted to move the item into closed meeting to discuss personnel issues.
• approved a 6 percent increase in dental insurance rates.
• approved an administrative staff evaluation form.
• approved a local review panel to verify locally awarded credits, which will help to modify the points system for Standards of Learning pass rates for special education students. “At this time, a special education student who could not pass SOLs would receive a modified standard diploma, but that scores a 70, so the school would be docked for those points unfairly,” Sturgill said.
• heard of a resolution presented to the board, requesting support from Galax City Schools for a lawsuit that has been brought forth by the Virginia School Board Association and Norfolk City School Board.
Opportunity Educational Institution (OEI) was created by the Virginia General Assembly to “rescue” chronically failing schools by placing them in a separate state-run division, instead of their local school division, until they improve.
The lawsuit seeks to “declare the OEI legislation unconstitutional, and to enjoin the OEI board from taking any action to implement the legislation.”
The board will revisit this request to approve or disapprove their support in October.