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Oxnard District Hopes to Extend Its School Year

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oxnard Union High School District officials want to extend the school year by 20 days, a groundbreaking proposal that must first win approval from the school board and the state Legislature.

An extra month of school is needed to boost mediocre grades and stagnant test scores in the 12,300-student district, Supt. Bill Studt said. Oxnard students currently attend for 180 days.

Perhaps more important, Studt said, is to instill in students the sense that learning must be their top priority. In Japan and Germany, where students regularly outperform their American counterparts in math and science, pupils attend school at least 240 days a year, he said.

“I feel very strongly that this is the only way we will be able to make significant gains in student achievement,” he said. “There are only so many changes in curriculum you can make before it no longer makes a difference.”

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The Oxnard Union district’s 180-day school year mirrors the national average. It is a schedule that has not changed much since the nation’s early days as an agrarian country, when children were needed for long summers to help bring in the harvest.

Other Ventura County educators applauded Studt for taking the lead on a reform that, while drawing support from many in the education establishment, is sure to draw fire from some parents, teachers and students.

“Anyone will show you that the amount of information that students need to stay economically competitive today is increasing every year,” Ventura County Supt. of Schools Charles Weis said. “Other nations have figured this out, but we still have the shortest school year of any industrialized nation.”

Joseph Spirito, chief of the Ventura Unified School District, said he hopes one day to increase the school year in his 15,000-student district by 40 days, to 220 days. But before he asks the state for money, Spirito said, he is considering his own pilot program of adding three hours to the school day at Sheridan Way School in western Ventura.

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If the results are good, he would then approach the Legislature with his own proposal, Spirito said.

“I think Studt is doing exactly what all superintendents should be doing,” Spirito said. "[State Supt. of Instruction] Delaine Eastin keeps telling us to increase graduation requirements. But how can I do that in 180 days?”

Studt will present the plan to the school board at a special meeting set to begin at 3 p.m. Thursday in the district board room at 220 South K St. in Oxnard.

If the five-member board gives its approval, he will then look for a legislative sponsor to introduce a bill naming the Oxnard district as the beneficiary of a state-funded three-year pilot project, Studt said.

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Although he had no specifics Monday on the cost of the pilot program, he estimated it would be in the millions because of the high cost of paying teachers for more days of work.

Studt said he is confident he will find a sponsor for the bill, but a state education official said he may have difficulty finding support in Sacramento.

“There would be those who say it’s not fair to spend that kind of money in one place,” said Susie Lange, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “Every legislator will say, ‘Well, I want that in my district.’ ”

Many politicians may also favor putting money behind reforms that focus on smaller class sizes, she said. California has the largest average class size of any state in the nation, Lange said.

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“If you have 35 kids crammed in a room, it doesn’t matter how many days you are going to school,” she said.

Studt acknowledged that changing two centuries of tradition will be difficult. Parents are used to having their children out of school for 10 weeks during the summer.

One week would be added to the beginning of the school year, and another to the end, making the summer break eight weeks long, Studt said. The other 10 days of instruction would be fit into the regular school year, on days that are now used for holidays or teacher preparation periods, he said.

Teachers will also have to sign on to the plan, he said. In initial conversations with teachers union leaders, many of the district’s 456 instructors have been supportive, he said.

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Other practical issues involve student transportation, athletic schedules and arranging for utilities, Studt said. All of the details will be worked out before the legislation winds its way through Sacramento, he said.

The district has hired a consultant to help put together its proposal and shepherd it through the political process, Studt said. That consultant, Kent Hall of School Services of California, has assured him that the process can be completed in time for the extended school year to take effect as early as next fall, he said.

If enacted, the plan would affect students at Oxnard, Camarillo, Rio Mesa, Hueneme and Channel Islands high schools.

At Oxnard High, the proposal was decidedly unpopular among a handful of students questioned.

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“No way,” said Freddie Ledesma, 17, a junior. “How about 20 less days?”

Steve Krause, 16, said he thinks school is too long already.

“Maybe if the teachers weren’t so boring, it wouldn’t be so bad,” said the 11th-grader. “It’d just be another month to sleep through school.”

But Studt said he is determined to see his ambitious plan become reality. Although Oxnard Union High students have seen small improvements on SAT scores and on statewide assessment tests in recent years, it is not enough, Studt said.

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“I’m willing to take this project on because I believe it is important,” he said. “I didn’t think students would be happy with it.”


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