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Published: Sunday, September 4, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Law mandating 180-day school year is more of a guideline

The law seems to be clear: A school year will consist of 180 days. When you take a look at school calendars throughout Snohomish County, that's not always the case.

"Some schools build in extra (days)," said Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. "Some realize they're going to need more due to inclement weather or professional days."

And in several cases in the county, school districts are opting for less than 180.

How does that happen?

A school district can apply for a waiver to the 180-day rule through the State Board of Education.

In Snohomish County, the Arlington, Edmonds, Monroe and Northshore school districts had waivers approved earlier this year that range from two to five days each over the next three school years.

Is this to save money?

School districts are straining to save money this year after the Legislature cut.

But school officials locally and at the state level say that's not the case.

It's been happening for years and it's aimed to give teachers time to better prepare to teach kids, said Sarah Rich, research director for the State Board of Education.

As part of the application process, the district describes if the waiver will help lead to a calendar with fewer half days, if the district will still be able to meet annual instructional hours of at least 1,000 hours and how the waiver will be used to increase student achievement.

Although she did say that these waivers do lower costs for districts in some cases.

"Sometimes it indirectly does if a no teacher day means not serving lunch or running buses but the purpose of that day can't be to save money," she said.

The board has approved 30 Option One waivers so far this year, Rich said. That number is higher than the 19 that were approved in 2010 but lower than the 65 waivers that were approved in 2008.

"The pattern I'm seeing is there were a lot that were granted in 2008 and many were three-year waivers up for renewal in 2011," she said.

There is no limit on how many days a district can request from this type of waiver or how many times a district can seek to renew the waiver, said Aaron Wyatt, a spokesman for the State Board of Education.

"Schools that are making effective use of professional development days to improve student achievements are going to have an easier path in getting their waivers approved," he said.

Edmonds School District started using waiver days in the 2003-04 school year, said DJ Jakala, a spokeswoman for the district. The State Board of Education has approved five waivers in all for the district, including one in March for five days during each of the next three school years. Teachers spend time on waiver days working on ways to improve student learning by receiving training on the district's literacy and math instructional materials, Jakala said.

The state cut funding for Learning Improvement Days that went beyond the 180 days and were meant to give teachers the opportunity to learn state-mandated changes associated with Washington State Learning Standards, Jakala said.

"While we still have those same expectations, the days are gone so the waiver days have become an important way for us to continue to meet those expectations," she said.

The Arlington School District is giving students 177 instructional days. Teachers will spend three waiver days coming up with standards for students to meet at each grade level, said district spokeswoman Andrea Conley.

"It doesn't change our school calendar because we build (waiver days) in," she said. "It doesn't really save us any money because we're still paying our teachers."

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