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Commissioner's Weekly Update - February 13, 2015

Snow! Snow! Snow!:

To say that the weather so far this winter is creating a scheduling challenge would be an understatement. The Department thanks everyone in every school and district working to deal with the record snowfalls. Elsewhere in this week's Update is information on scheduling flexibility for the MCAS and PARCC assessments.

With respect to missed school days, the current policy is online. Although the commissioner has authority to reduce the student learning time requirements in extraordinary circumstances, that has always been a last resort. Districts should be making a good faith effort to adjust school calendars for the balance of the year. If the remainder of the winter yields continued weather emergencies, ESE will reevaluate whether there is a need to grant waivers to individual districts, but the agency does not expect to issue a general, state-wide waiver.

The Department has received inquiries regarding so-called "blizzard bags," assigned work sent home with students in advance of an expected storm. In many cases, this work appears to be very similar to normal homework assignments; there is educational value, but it does not necessarily meet the standard for structured learning time. For this approach to count toward the student learning time requirements, school districts must ensure that such work is structured learning time, is substantial, and has appropriate oversight and teacher involvement. To the degree that learning outside of the school setting may rely upon parental involvement or access to technology, districts must also account for the widely varying circumstances in students' homes. Districts are encouraged to share their experiences as they experiment with different models so that all can learn about their effectiveness and develop examples of best practices.

Some districts have asked about lengthening the school day so that the minimum total learning time requirement (900 hours in elementary schools and 990 hours in secondary schools) can be met in fewer than 180 days. The Department has not previously approved such arrangements. However, if a district has made every effort to reschedule the lost days, including the use of April vacation and professional development days, we are willing to consider proposals for longer days to make up any remaining days. Such proposals must demonstrate a positive impact on student learning. The amount of time being added to a day must be significant, the reduction in the total number of days must be minimal, and districts will need to provide information on implementation issues including teacher contract provisions, bus schedules, parent input, and students' ability to participate in afterschool activities. Any district interested in pursuing such an option should contact Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson (781-338-6500 or jwulfson@doe.mass.edu) to discuss the details.

Finally, as districts plan their calendars and schedules for next year, ESE again encourages leaders to think about alternatives that would enhance student learning while at the same time provide more flexibility to deal with weather-related closures. These include holding the first day of school before Labor Day, scheduling a one-week vacation in March instead of week-long vacations in February and April, and notifying parents, teachers, and students that vacations may be cancelled or shortened if multiple school days have to be made up. If you have a proposal for an innovative calendar that would require relief from the 180-day requirement, ESE would like to hear about it. Information on applying for waivers to implement such a program is available online.

MCAS and PARCC Snow Flexibility:

In response to the recent snowstorms that have caused an unprecedented number of school closures this month and to allow schools more instructional time prior to assessment, ESE plans to offer flexibility for scheduling the statewide testing windows for MCAS, MCAS Alternate Assessment, and PARCC. This flexibility will include extensions to the testing windows as well as alternate dates for the MCAS Grade 10 English Language Arts, Mathematics, and June Science and Technology/Engineering tests, and the grades 4, 7, and 10 MCAS ELA Composition and Composition Make-Up tests.

More details will be emailed to superintendents and principals next week once we are able to determine all related logistics. There will be a short turnaround time for superintendents to request an alternative schedule, as we will need confirmation of decisions by the end of February.

Interest-Free Financing for Capital Projects:

The Department is accepting applications for a new round of qualified zone academy bond (QZAB) allocations. The bond allocations allow districts and charter schools to issue interest-free debt for building and technology renovations and upgrades. Lenders receive federal tax credits in lieu of interest payments. To qualify, schools should be located in economically distressed areas and have a curriculum designed through school/business partnerships. The request for proposals is posted on our website.

Field Test of PARCC ELA Tasks:

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) Inc. is looking for schools to participate in a voluntary spring 2015 English language arts/literacy performance-based assessment field test in grades 3-11. Test administration will be primarily computer-based and will occur between May 4 and June 5, 2015. Schools and districts will receive registration information over the next few days. Please review the attached documents for more information and contact parcc@doe.mass.edu with any questions.

Preliminary Census Estimates for SY2015-16 Title I Funding:

The federal Census Bureau has released preliminary poverty and population data for Massachusetts school districts that, once finalized later this year, will be used to calculate Title I, Part A district allocations for the 2015-16 school year. You can view preliminary, unadjusted 2013 census data for your district and find more information online. Please note that preliminary census data are not available for charter school or regional vocational school districts.

Information Session about Expanded Learning Time Grants:

The Department is offering an optional grant information session for potential applicants to the upcoming federally-funded FY16 21st Century Community Learning Centers – Supporting Additional Time for Expanded Learning Time (ELT) and Out-of-School Time (OST) Grants (Fund Code 647-B1). This grant program is intended to provide schools and communities with the opportunity to thoughtfully plan for and implement additional learning time that meets the specific needs of the students they serve.

The session will run from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at Tower Hill Botanic Gardens, 11 French Drive, Boylston. Registration is due by Feb. 24. More information and registration is available online. Additional information about this grant is also available on ESE's 21st Century Community Learning Centers pages. The funding opportunity/request for proposals is expected to be posted in late February or early March on ESE's grants page.

Breakfast in the Classroom:

Providing school breakfast after the bell, in the classroom, is a proven strategy for increasing breakfast participation rates. Some districts have asked whether that time can still be counted as student learning time. Under certain circumstances, the answer is yes. The Department has posted new guidance on this issue on ESE's Nutrition, Health and Safety webpage.

Educator Effectiveness Spring Convening 2015:

Mark your calendar! The Department will host the 3rd annual Educator Effectiveness Spring Convening on May 27 and repeat the program on May 28. Both daylong conferences will be held at the Best Western Royal Plaza in Marlborough. Each district is invited to bring a team of four, and ESE will soon send registration information directly to superintendents. Anyone with questions can send an email to EdEvalEvents@doe.mass.edu.

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Last Updated: February 13, 2015
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