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North Carolina School District Drops Longer School Year, Day Experiment

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One of two North Carolina districts that agreed to participate in a state-sponsored pilot test of key recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education--that the school day and year be lengthened--has withdrawn from the project because of community opposition.

North Carolina was among the first states to respond to the excellence commission's April 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk." It proposed to run a three-year experiment with the school calendar among its districts. The announcement that the Polk County school board would abandon the effort this June came midway through the second year of the program.

The board of the rural 1,550-student Polk County district approved participation in the experiment in 1983, but last May, three of five school-board members were defeated by candidates who opposed the project.

Earlier this month, the new board voted 4 to 1 to abandon the state's "Time For Learning Project," which had added 30 minutes to the district's school day and 20 days to the school year for all grades with the aim of improving student achievement. The project, which created a school year of 200 seven-hour days, never gained the support of the people of Polk County, officials said.

Phillip Fischer, chairman of the school board, said local opposition was sparked when officials implemented the experiment before telling the community about it. "People have had enough of public officials trying to cram things down their throats," Mr. Fischer said.

The Halifax County Schools, the other district taking part in the experiment, weathered early community opposition and will proceed with project to the end, officials there said last week.

School-Board Issue

According to Mr. Fischer, the extended-day project became the3dominant issue in the school-board election last May. Three candidates who advocated withdrawing from the experiment were easily elected.

Stephen Sneed, assistant superintendent of Polk County Schools, said voters were most upset at the way the project was implemented without community consultations, but Mr. Fischer, who was among those elected to the board, contended that people were also displeased with the way the extra time was used.

"At the high-school level, all they did was shorten each period by five minutes and add a study hall to each student's schedule," Mr. Fischer said. "In my opinion, they actually shortened the day."

Mr. Sneed said the extra period, called an "extended study period," was meant to provide time for such pull-out programs as driver's education and special education, and a variety of mini-courses. But many parents, he said, came to see the period as a study hall.

Officials Disappointed

State education officials said they were "disappointed" at the Polk decision to discontinue the experiment because it will impair efforts to determine whether students learn more if they are in school longer.

"We will be put in a difficult spot now to try to make accurate judgments on what we had projected as a three-year experiment," said Dudley Flood, associate state superintendent of schools and coordinator of the experiment. "We won't be able to make as forceful an argument either way without the complete Polk data."

The experiment costs the state $2.2 million annually. Most of that money goes to participating teachers, who received a 5-percent incentive increase for working the extended day and an extra month's pay for the 20 days added to the school year.

Thomas R. Edwards, president of the Polk County association of teachers, said the extra salary had little to do with how the local teachers felt about the project. He said that while some were opposed to the program all along, many wanted to finish the three-year experiment. "Most were interested in seeing if the extended day would make a difference in learning," he said.

But he added that everyone's top priority now is to "bring some harmony back" to the disrupted district.

Preliminary Results

Last year's scores on the California Achievement Test (cat) indicated that after just one year of the project the Polk students had gained an average of 3.1 months over the previous year, according to Mr. Sneed.

If gains had continued at that rate, Mr. Sneed pointed out, students could have gained nine months, or an entire school year, during the course of the three-year experiment. "Now, we'll never know," he said.

In Halifax County, results after the first year were mixed. Herman L. Brown, associate superintendent for Halifax County Schools, said a state evaluation found that some students showed gains, but others stayed the same and some even lost ground. "We feel that the first year is too soon to assess the program's accomplishments,"he said.

Project Rushed

Mr. Flood conceded that far too little time went into the preparation of the experiment.

Thomas Davis, a spokesman for the state department of education, said that about 30 districts from around the state initially expressed an interest in participating. But when they found out that they would have just one week to submit a proposal to the state, he added, all but two declined to apply.

The Polk schools consistently score in the bottom quartile of state districts on the cat, so school officials "saw an opportunity to make up some ground," Mr. Sneed said. They did not have time to conduct hearings on the plan, but they did contact community leaders about it, and most thought it sounded like a good idea, he said.

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