District 87 is forging ahead with its school calendar and plans to implement alternative learning days, despite possible changes from impending state legislation.
Superintendent Barry Reilly said two bills moving through the Illinois General Assembly would increase the number of days students have to be in school and how many hours count as a school day. That’s kept the district from passing its 2019-2020 school year calendar, as administrators worked to build three additional days into the calendar.
Reilly said administrators plan to bring the draft calendar presented to the board Wednesday night back for approval next month, even though legislation may not be finalized until a later date.
“We really want to get a calendar out to the community,” he said. “There are folks out there that are waiting, planning trips, whatever the case may be.”
Reilly said he’s confident the calendar won’t change even after new laws are passed.
The pending legislation also references E-learning days, or alternative learning days as District 87 calls them, when students access curriculum from home during bad weather.
The district ran a pilot program during the January polar vortex to explore how alternative learning days could benefit families. The district surveyed parents, students and teachers to collect feedback afterwards.
Reilly said administrators are putting together a group of teachers and principals representing various grade levels across the district to translate that feedback into an outline for an alternative learning days program.
“We think it’s important to get all those minds together to come up with the best practices, because we had a lot of neat things that happened on those days,” Reilly said.
Not that the pilot program didn’t come with its fair share of challenges.
“But we think we can do those very well and do a good job when we have those bad weather days,” he said.
One of those challenges is feeding children from low-income families. It’s one of the reasons Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel gave for passing on E-learning days.
“That’s a valid concern,” Reilly said. “In our case, we do a lot with our low-income students at all levels.” The district already provides students with backpacks of food to take home ahead of time when it looks like bad weather is on the way, he explained.
Daniel also said making up a missed school day the end of the year means another day students have access to food. In District 87’s case, “We have summer feeding programs in different neighborhoods,” Reilly said. “So I’m not concerned that our kids are going to be hungry.” It is a question the educator group will consider, he said.
Another issue they’ll have to consider: individualized education plans, or IEPs, for students with special needs.
Reilly said in many cases, advanced planning can help make sure a student’s needs are met, even without face time with a teacher. That may not be sufficient for all students.
“What we’ll have to do in those more isolated cases is work with parents, and come up with a plan to make sure that we do address those needs,” perhaps with makeup work on an end-of-year emergency day, Reilly said.
Reduction In Force
The district placed 17 part-time and paraprofessional educators on a reduction in force list, making the future of their jobs uncertain. At the end of the school year, the teachers will effectively be without a job.
Reilly said in light of ongoing structural deficits, the district can’t guarantee that it will need or be able to fund every position held this year. The district has run a deficit in its education fund, the source of funding for classroom teachers, for the past several years.
Reilly said it’s not unusual for the district to offer those teachers their jobs back once those questions are answered. In fact, the district hasn’t cut any teachers to date. “And it will not surprise me that we’ll be able to do that again in some of these cases.” Reilly said.
But it’s a situation they can’t avoid forever.
“We are either going to have to go through some drastic reductions to close our budget gap, or we’re going to have to find additional revenues,” he said. “And right now the revenues are not very strong; they’re not growing.”
And while the list is small, “It’s still very personal to those folks involved, because there are some very good teachers on that list,” he said.
There’s a chance those teachers won’t be available even if the district is able to offer their positions again next year.
“If they need full-time status or they need at least a part-time job for certain, they may not be waiting around for that call from us,” Reilly said.
Just as revenues aren’t growing, Reilly said the district may see a slight drop in enrollment again this year. District 87 has been tracking a decade-long trend of decreasing enrollment.
Some elementary schools could even be considered overstaffed, he said.
“Now, that’s good for the learning environment and those classes, but when you’re facing a structural deficit, that’s not the best way to be able to do things,” he said.
Reilly said the district may be able to reduce its staff by attrition, leaving positions vacant as teachers retire or move away.
But with a worsening statewide teacher shortage, it could prove difficult to fill those positions if the district determines more teachers are needed.
Bloomington-Normal does have the advantage of several teacher-producing higher education institutions in the area, he said.
“We’re fortunate that we have that here in our backyard and have access to student teachers, and we try to tap that talent and really identify those folks when they’re with us, and we do hire a lot of those people,” he said.
He said the district’s competitive pay and the community’s desirability help it continue to attract teachers from a shrinking talent pool.
Helping new teachers adjust to the community and their job is even more important as workloads increase, he added.
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