Sunday, March 2, 2003

Students paying for snow days

Harsh winter means local schools must cram

By Cindy Kranz and Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

This winter's celebrated snow days are coming back to haunt students and teachers alike, with districts on both sides of the river shortening lunch periods, lengthening school days and taking a bite out of spring breaks to make up for valuable lost time.

Relentless weather and waves of illness have caused many districts to miss the most school days in 25 years, including 16 lost days for Walton-Verona and 13 in Adams County/Ohio Valley Schools.

This lost time is lost gold to students and the schools, especially those preparing for state proficiency tests, which begin Monday in Ohio.

Like other districts, Georgetown Exempted Village Schools in Brown County missed valuable proficiency preparation time.

"We're scared," said superintendent Michael Smith, whose district lost 10 days. "We really missed out on a critical two weeks prior to the testing. We've just barely seen the kids since the 10th of February. We hope we've done enough to hang onto our `Effective' school status."

This winter has been unusually harsh. More than 32 inches of snow have fallen at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, compared with 7.7 inches that fell all of last winter.

Since the blizzard of 1978, Ohio law has allowed schools up to five excused "calamity" days. Beyond that, lost days must be made up until the school reaches the required 182 days for the year.

In Kentucky, schools can lengthen the day to make up for lost time, but their Ohio counterparts can't.

Adams County/Ohio Valley Schools has missed 13 days and has had eight days of delayed starts and early dismissals. The district has to make up eight days.

Next month's spring break has already been shortened by three days, and the district will use June 2-6 for makeup days if it doesn't get a reprieve from the state.

Adams County/Ohio Valley Schools faces unique challenges. At 640 square miles, it's the largest school district in the state - with many gravel township roads that are difficult for buses to navigate in snow and ice.

These days, superintendent Pat Kimble keeps an eye on the sky and an eye on the river. There are some bus routes that haven't run since the ice storm of Feb. 15-17 because trees are still down over the road. Last week, kids on two bus routes had to be sent home early because of water over the roads.

Adams County is one of more than two dozen districts that asked the state - without success - to delay proficiency tests.

"Nothing, nothing, nothing gets in the way of the proficiency tests," Kimble said. "I don't care if you haven't been in school for three months, you're going to take those tests."

The lost days have Regina Boling scrambling to catch up. She teaches fourth grade at West Union Elementary School in Adams County.

"We're kind of concerned about how the scores are going to come out this year," she said. "We've only gone (to school) 10 days in February. In January, we only had one complete week of school. When you miss so much school, it's like starting all over."

Kentucky school districts, especially those with winding rural roads and rolling hills, missed what amounted to several weeks of school over the last two months.

Like their Ohio counterparts, teachers and students are jittery about having enough time to cover content that will be on statewide tests beginning in April.

Campbell County, which called off school 11 days, also canceled a break scheduled March 24-28. Students will instead attend school.

Walton-Verona leads the Tristate in lost days due to snow and illness - 16 - and had a 17th day canceled when a historic car garage went up in flames in Verona.

In addition to lengthening the school day by 25 minutes, the district shortened students' lunch periods by five minutes. Since Feb. 24, the high school's schedule is 7:55 a.m.-3 p.m. through the end of the year.

Cody Ryan, a 17-year-old junior at Walton-Verona High School, said the snow days were a nice break at first - but students are tired of them now.

"It's taken an extremely long time to do stuff, and it's all broken up,'' Cody said. "You have stuff in your head, and then you lose it. When I go over to study my notes, there are some gaps."

It took his advanced placement U.S. history class three weeks to tackle one unit on American colonial society because of the interrupted time, Cody said. Remembering details about the Sugar Act and Stamp Act and the contributions of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proved difficult after missing so much school.

Cody's advanced placement U.S. history teacher, Woody McMillen, said he's concerned about students having enough time to tackle material before state testing begins in April and before the national AP U.S. history test May 9.

To compensate, McMillen increased nightly reading requirements of his students by 50 percent or more.

In Ohio, this coming week's proficiency tests are a major concern. Eastern (Brown) Local School District, based in Sardinia, has lost 12 days and has to make up seven.

"We've had proficiency tutoring in the evenings. Of course, we've had to cancel that, too," superintendent Alan Simmons said. "It's hard to keep (students) focused when you're off and on like that."

In Cincinnati Public Schools, Hartwell Elementary principal James Gum said his students and teachers have been preparing for proficiency tests all year.

Gum said the district is fortunate to have missed only three days due to snow. Still, those lost days makes some teachers nervous because of the high stakes of the state tests.

"This adds to the stress," Gum said. "Teachers work as hard as they can to make sure every one of our students is in the best position possible to be successful. If teachers had it their way, they'd want 10 more days to prepare instead of two more days."

Besides messing with academics, schools have had to juggle postponed activities. At Georgetown, the district doubled up a science fair and parent-teachers' conference last Tuesday night. Both had been previously canceled because of the weather.

"We probably had as large a crowd as we've had for a non-sports event," superintendent Smith said. "By combining them, we may have discovered a way to get more participation in both."

The biggest extracurricular problem in Adams County is the basketball schedule. Some non-league games were canceled and never made up. Some schools now in the midst of tournament play have agreed to finish the regular season games after the tournament is over.

At Eastern Local, lost days could even affect commencement plans, set for June 1.

"We have thousands of dollars worth of announcements that have been printed," superintendent Simmons said. "People have made plans. If we changed that date now, we'd have to reprint the announcements."

The seemingly endless winter has also taken its tolls on weary superintendents.

"Snow days have really curtailed my activities," said Tom Durbin, Williamsburg Local School District superintendent. "I get up at 3:30 in the morning to drive the roads."

Ten days ago, Durbin left for work at 3:50 a.m. and arrived home at 11:10 p.m. after attending two school basketball games.

So far, the Clermont County superintendent has cancelled six days of school.

"I used to like snow," he said.

In Butler and Warren counties, meanwhile, most districts have been spared from large numbers of snow days.

Lakota Local School District, for example, has had only four snow days. Still, the district had hoped the state would delay the start of proficiency tests. Like all districts, every day lost affects education.

Depending on the school, Fairfield City Schools have used three to five calamity days. The only group that has maxed out on calamity days is afternoon kindergarten. If those kindergartners miss one more day, they will have to make up that time.

In Hamilton County, Norwood Schools has missed three days this year - two for snow and one for illness. That's a small number compared with some districts, but Norwood is taking a proactive approach.

The school board has adopted a "front-loaded" calendar for next year. By starting five days earlier - Aug. 19 - the district has guaranteed five extra days of instruction before proficiency testing in October and March.

The change wasn't made because of snow days, but it is a factor, said superintendent Barbara Rider. "We wanted five more days before the testing began, but it certainly helps if we have another rough winter next year."

Loren Wilson, superintendent for New Richmond Exempted Village School, tries to keep this year's winter in perspective.

During the winter of 1977-78, Wilson was an assistant superintendent in the Milford district. In January 1978, his students attended school three days.


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