The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Update on Implementation of Student Learning Time Waivers

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
October 10, 2014

This memo provides a brief update on the status and implementation of the new process for approval of student learning time waivers. In the spring, I will report on the rollout of the process, including waivers requested and waivers granted.


The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board), at its meeting on April 23, 2013, voted to authorize the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education (Commissioner) to establish a waiver process to encourage innovative, high quality programming and schedules for students who would benefit from educational program options that provide less instructional time than the minimum school day and school year requirements established in the regulations for Student Learning Time at 603 CMR 27.00. The waiver process reviews for educational adequacy as well as innovation. The Board delegated authority to the Commissioner to grant the waivers, with periodic reports to the Board on any waivers that he grants.

Under the regulations, school committees are required to schedule a school year that includes at least 185 days and must operate schools for at least 180 days. In addition, schools must ensure each year that students are scheduled to receive a minimum of 900 hours of structured learning time for elementary school students and a minimum of 990 hours for secondary school students. Kindergarten students must receive a minimum of 425 hours of structured learning time.

The regulations include two waiver provisions at 603 CMR 27.06. One provision, 603 CMR 27.06(2), allows the Commissioner to waive the 180-day requirement when an emergency forces the closing of one or more schools. Those waivers are granted only in extraordinary circumstances, as described in our November 2012 guidance document.

The other waiver provision, 603 CMR 27.06(1), authorizes the Board to grant a waiver for innovative programming. The provision provides that the Board of [Elementary and Secondary] Education may, upon the written application of a school committee and the recommendation of the Commissioner of [Elementary and Secondary] Education, grant a waiver of any requirements set forth in 603 CMR 27.00 for good cause. School committees are encouraged to apply for waivers, as needed, to permit the district to initiate innovative programs or schedules intended to improve student learning.

Current Flexibility Under the Student Learning Time Regulations

The Student Learning Time Regulations allow flexibility in fulfilling the requirements for structured learning time. Options for structured learning time under the current regulations include independent study, structured contextual learning (e.g., work- or service-based learning), a competency-based program of study, credit recovery, and online coursework. A waiver is not necessarily required to implement these programs, provided that all courses and opportunities are approved by the district's school committee, documented as legitimate options for students, and the total amount of student learning time is a minimum of 900/990 hours and 180 days. Structured learning time is not "seat time"-learning may take place in a variety of settings and the program of a student may be accelerated as necessary to meet his or her individual needs.

In addition, the regulations do not include hour requirements for specific content areas. For instance, the regulations do not require a minimum number of math instructional hours. Finally, the regulations allow for individual students to attend part-time on a case-by-case basis. For more information about the Student Learning Time Regulations, please see the associated Q&A.

Pilot for Student Learning Time Waivers

Springfield Public Schools requested a waiver for their Gateway to College program, an early college model at Springfield Technical Community College, in January 2013. The Gateway to College program is located on the college campus and operates on the college academic calendar, which provides less instructional time than the minimum school day and school year requirements established in the Student Learning Time Regulations.

Early college high schools are a proven model to prepare students for postsecondary education. This is especially true for low-income, minority, and first-generation college students. These programs provide students with a college experience and an opportunity to start earning college credits while still in high school. Two examples of such programs that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department) is supporting are the Gateway to College program and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Early College High School. Early college high schools are designed to result in a higher rate of college matriculation for students currently underrepresented in higher education and to build an accelerated route linking secondary and postsecondary education. These programs and schools are developed through agreements between high schools and postsecondary institutions. For more information about early college programs in Massachusetts, please see a report from June 2014.

The Gateway to College program is an early college model that specifically enrolls students who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out. Gateway to College is a national model. It gives students the opportunity to earn their high school diploma in a college setting and also earn college credit. The students are placed in a cohort at a community college under an agreement with the student's high school. Students enroll in college courses and receive one-on-one advising and counseling from a resource specialist as they matriculate through college. Six Gateway to College programs currently operate in Massachusetts, including the one located at Springfield Technical Community College; a total of 37 school districts participate in Gateway to College. Three of the Gateway to College sites were started with the support of the Department's MassGrad project, the federal High School Graduation Initiative grant. All of the Gateway to College sites will be encouraged to apply for a Student Learning Time Waiver.

Following the Board's vote in April 2013 to authorize the establishment of a waiver process, the Department piloted a waiver application with Springfield Public Schools during the 2013-14 school year for the Gateway to College program at Springfield Technical Community College. This pilot served as a key step toward statewide rollout of the Student Learning Time Waiver application. In July 2014, I approved the Student Learning Time Waiver application from Springfield Public Schools for their Gateway to College program.

Statewide Rollout of Process for Student Learning Time Waivers

The Department made revisions to the applications for student learning time waivers based upon the Springfield application and feedback from reviewers. View the 2014-15 waiver application for districts.

The intent of this waiver process is to enable innovative programs and schedules that will benefit students educationally and improve student learning. This waiver process is not intended for emergency cases or extraordinary and unanticipated circumstances that force the closing of one or more of a district's schools. The innovative programs under this waiver application should be focused on addressing an unmet student need in the district. Waivers may be granted for innovative schedules that focus on quality programming that is supported by a sound educational rationale and accountability for results. Waivers may be granted for up to a three-year time period, subject to annual review by the Department that indicates promising results.

The Department will review programs approved for a waiver on an annual basis to determine whether they are providing a quality, innovative education for students that justifies maintaining the waiver. The annual review will include results on the district's accountability plan and additional data as determined by the Department. The Department reserves the right to rescind approval of a waiver application based upon this review.

The timeline for the waiver process in 2014-15, such waivers to be implemented starting in the 2015-16 school year, is as follows.

October 31, 2014District deadline for submitting a non-binding letter of intent to apply that includes a short (less than one page) summary of proposed waiver request
November 14, 2014Department anticipates responding to letters of intent, indicating whether or not a waiver application is needed to implement proposed innovative programming
December 5, 2014District deadline for submission of an optional draft waiver application to receive Department feedback
December 19, 2014Department anticipates providing feedback to districts that submitted draft waiver applications
January 30, 2015District deadline for submission of final waiver application
March 6, 2015Department anticipates providing waiver application authorization

If you have any questions or require additional information, please contact Cliff Chuang, Associate Commissioner (781-338-3222); Jeff Wulfson, Deputy Commissioner (781-338-6500); or me.