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Last days of school called a waste of time for students

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For many students, school work dwindles to nil the last week of school to the dismay of parents and educators, including the state superintendent of public instruction.

"I really don't have sympathy for any situation where we don't have serious instruction for the full 180 days" required by law, said school superintendent Scott Bean, who for years has discussed extending the school year to 200 days or more."My feeling is that we ought to agree among ourselves as educators that we're going to ensure students have meaningful educational instruction all the way through the end of school."

By Monday, most Utah schools were out except some in Salt Lake City School District, which finish Wednesday.

Many Wasatch Front students checked in books and cleaned out lockers with several days to go. Teachers boxed up room decor and turned in grades before term's end. Field trips, and fun days and field days were common, as were all-day yearbook signings and video watching.

"It's absolutely a poor educational practice. If I could think of a stronger word, I would use it," said Doug Bates, state director of school law and legislation, adding the problem is widespread.

But the issue boils down to teacher contracts, which end when kids leave, forcing teachers to balance year-end tasks with keeping students engaged, said Phyllis Sorensen, president of the Utah Education Association.

Students do receive the required 990 hours of classroom instruction or more: Salt Lake City's Highland High tallied 1,002 instruction hours this year, for example.

"It's just the same old problem: money," Sorensen said. "I wish there was a way teachers could teach until the last day and be paid to do what forces them to do the last week of school. But I don't think anyone wants to suggest teachers shouldn't be paid for what they do."

Paying some 20,000 Utah teachers one extra day would cost the state about $4 million, said Laurie Chivers, deputy state school superintendent.

Two to five days of extra pay is an unlikely solution, considering Utah ranks last in the nation for per-pupil spending.

But there are other answers, Bean said. As a South Sanpete superintendent, he required teachers to conduct final exams the last two days of school and turn in grades afterward.

Along the Wasatch Front, teachers could save two of their five or six career-ladder days for cleaning up, grading, ordering supplies, gathering textbooks and such.

Such a solution, while discussed in some Salt Lake education circles, would violate the purpose of the career ladder program, which is to offer teacher inservice training, said Don Barlow, assistant principal of Highland High School.

Meanwhile, schools are between a rock and a hard place.

"It's a complicated problem without any easy answers . . . and kids aren't easy to teach at the end of the school year," said Karen Derrick, president of the Salt Lake City Board of Education. "I am sympathetic to the teachers. But as a parent and school board member, I think there are things that can be done without books."

Sometimes, though, kids just don't show up.

"Part of our dilemma in the schools is that we have kids working in schools for grades and credit as opposed to working for knowledge and information," Barlow said. "What (students) are after is a grade."

Take, for instance, Advanced Placement classes, which enroll top students interested in earning college credit while in high school. AP exams were held three weeks ago. Since then, students have more or less trickled in to class.

"They took the AP test . . . then turned in their books," said one Taylorsville parent. "Most students didn't even attend that class the last three weeks. The few who did watched videos."

Other parents have complained about rampant video watching in the schools. One Highland High student watched videos from "The Little Mermaid" to "West Side Story" in five of seven classes Thursday - including gym. School is in session there through Wednesday.

Such abuse of videos in the classroom has resulted in their disappearance in some Davis District schools, said area director Paul Waite.

"I would be very surprised if any (were shown) at all," Waite said. "It's a shame. A video can get the curriculum across in a very positive way if it's done properly."

In 1995, the Davis Board of Education adopted a resolution eliminating senior activity days and setting final exams for the last week of school. Textbooks may be handed in the penultimate week, but teachers are directed to use other materials to "maintain the integrity and continuity of the program."

The Salt Lake City School District offers schools a similar directive, as does the Granite School District, without a formal school board resolution.

"(The issue) is something we've seriously looked at for quite some time. We look at those 180 days as being not very many days and we try to do everything we can to make them worthwhile and educational," said Granite Superintendent Stephen Ronnenkamp.

While such directives are needed, they also are somewhat naive, Barlow said.

"When the last day is the day teachers have to check out and also the day grades are due, it's a little naive to think something relevant to the particular subject being taught and (that can) impact the grade will go up to the last day."