BILL WOULD EXTEND HIGH SCHOOL YEAR.
The Oxnard Union High School District wants to test whether boosting student performance might be as simple as adding days to the school calendar.
The district has proposed becoming the first school system in the state to add 15 days to the 180-day academic year. Legislation introduced in the California Assembly last week calls for state funding for a three-year pilot project.
The proposal was written by a district task force that wants to test a theory often heralded: If staying in school about 240 days each year is good for children in some other countries, then their counterparts in the United States also should benefit from more time learning and less time playing.
"We would like to show that more time on task will positively affect student achievement, and we think that it will," said Gary Davis, the district's assistant superintendent for educational services. "That's why it's a very simple proposal."
While state lawmakers are expected to question the program's anticipated $12.3 million cost, many teachers already doubt the anticipated benefits for students.
"The additional 15 days are not going to improve learning," said Darrell Larkin, president of the Oxnard Federation of Teachers. "It's just more days. It doesn't restructure the system, it just adds time."
The proposal calls for adding seven days to the second semester of the 1996-97 year and 15 days to each school year during a three-year period beginning in fall 1997.
Contained in a bill by Assemblyman Nao Takasugi, R-Oxnard, the proposal would cost $1.8 million in salaries and other expenses the first year and $3.5 million in each of the three succeeding years. The cost would go higher if other districts showed interest and were allowed to lengthen their school calendar.
Takasugi said the pilot project would be a worthwhile venture to give educators and parents a chance to learn whether students will gain from more time in the classroom.
"It's just a matter of prioritizing what the needs are, and there is no higher one than this," said Takasugi, who graduated from Oxnard High School, as did his five children.
Takasugi contends that spending more days in school will help U.S. students close an academic gap between them and their counterparts in the world's other advanced economies. The assemblyman said the performance of exchange students in many Ventura County classrooms is enough cause for concern.
"If we have a transfer student from Germany or Japan come in, beyond the language barrier, they are far ahead of our students," Takasugi said. "We've got to get our kids caught up because today your competition in the private sector is not just from your own country, it's global."
Ryan Ingrassia, a Camarillo High School junior on the task force, doesn't like being compared with teen-agers overseas. Ingrassia nevertheless said a longer school year would give him more more time to improve his writing, read history, and polish a foreign language.
"I think the older students will try to resist this, but it will be new for the incoming freshmen," he said. "I think it's something someone needs to try."
"It's very hard to even make it through a textbook in a year," Ingrassia noted.
Ingrassia acknowledged that a longer school year could be a tough sell for the 13,000 students on the district's six campuses.
"If you have a day where you can go to Magic Mountain, then the school is the enemy for taking the day away from you," he said.
School officials said the proposed pilot project would provide a good gauge of whether more classroom time boosts student performance, as well as whether the idea generates enough support.
Bill Studt, superintendent of the Oxnard Union High School District, said an important barometer will be the freshman class entering school this coming fall. After four years, those students would have been in school 52 more days than a student graduating this year.
"They're going to get just about a tad short of an additional semester, and we think it will better prepare our students across the board," Studt said.
The task force determined that such a reform could benefit every student and proposed extending the school year at all of the district's campuses in the Oxnard and Camarillo area, including the continuation school for students at risk of dropping out.
"Many dropouts will say they're not succeeding, they're in too far over their heads and don't think they can graduate, and they leave school," Davis said. "We think this proposal is going to help all students. This is not just for the college-bound students."
Supporters of the proposal, however, acknowledge that including the entire district will make a pilot program expensive.
The legislative measure is expected to get an initial hearing in the Assembly Education Committee within a month. The true test will come in the Appropriations Committee, which must approve the bill for it to gain consideration on the Assembly floor.
"It's not going to be easy just because it takes a lot of money and no one knows if it's worth it," said Bob Blattner, legislative coordinator for School Services of California, the lobbying group helping push the measure in Sacramento.
"We contend that it's a wise use of the money," he said. "You compare us to the different countries and the evidence would certainly tend to lead one to think that they think it's worthwhile."
The only other California public school district to lengthen its school calendar was South Bay Union Elementary School District in San Diego County.
Blattner said that program did not provide a good gauge of whether longer school years made a difference in student performance. He said the program was voluntary and ultimately proved unpopular because the district took federal and state funding from so-called categorical programs, such as special education and reading, to pay costs.
"The Oxnard program would be a start," he said.
Administrators, teachers and parents began talking last fall about adding weeks to the calendar for district high schools.
The district task force crafted the proposal by referring to a 1994 U.S. Department of Education report titled "Prisoners of Time." The primary conclusion of that study was that the 175- or 180-day school year, common across the nation, is public education's primary flaw.
Supporters of the Oxnard proposal say that students are expected to learn more in core subjects, improve study skills, and perform better on standardized tests than their predecessors, but they have no more time in the classroom.
The teachers' federation, however, took an official position in November to oppose the proposal, voting against it by a margin of 69 percent to 31 percent. The federation includes 1,100 teachers and classified staff, said Larkin, the president.
"They felt it was a shortsighted view of improving student achievement," Larkin said.
"The better way is to work on the present system and try to improve that with an aggressive attendance policy (and) with better staff development, minimizing interruptions, for better-quality time in the classroom," he explained.
Despite concerns that more days in school would not improve students' learning, teachers have continued to participate in the planning to push for structural changes, Larkin said.
The reaction of teachers did not surprise Ingrassia, the Camarillo High junior who served on the task force. He said teachers, like students, will remain skeptics unless the program works.
"Teachers, at least the majority of them, enjoy teaching, and I think if they have more time, most of them will be more enthusiastic," Ingrassia said.
"I think all of us will be helped if we have more time to at least improve what we do now."