N. Carolina tried and failed 200-day plan had very little support

September 27, 1990|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

Supporters of a 200-day school year for Maryland public schools might take a look at North Carolina where a similar, but rocky, experiment was tried.

Praised by educators, the pilot program nonetheless was scrapped in midstream by one rural county because of intense local opposition.

And, though a second county stayed with the program for its full three years, state officials opted not to renew the experiment after it ended in 1988.

"It won no political brownie points with anybody and because of that, it had no champion," said Dudley Flood, a state education official who coordinated the program.

He and other educators blamed inadequate planning and sometimes emotional opposition from parents for the experiment's demise.

North Carolina's experience highlights some of the pitfalls in extending the school year.

Inspired by a national report recommending a longer school year, North Carolina education officials in May 1985 asked local school districts to volunteer for a $3.2 million pilot program.

Two came forward: Polk County in the western part of the state and Halifax County in the east.

By August 1985, both counties had embarked on a three-year experiment that boosted the school year to 200 days from 180 days and lengthened the school day to six hours from 5 1/2 hours.

The academic results were promising though not conclusive, according to Flood.

In Halifax County, student performance remained about the same in the first year, as measured by the California Achievement Test. Students made some progress in the second year, and slight progress in the third year.

In Polk County, students "made some several months of progress" in the first and second years of the program, Flood said.

Then the roof fell in.

Parents in Polk County complained about students starting school earlier in the summer, saying they were needed at home for work or vacations.

Others argued that "more wasn't necessarily better," recalled Susan Leonard, assistant school superintendent for instruction in Polk County.

Members of the elected school board even ran on a platform to scrap the program. And in 1987, the board pulled Polk County out of the program.

"There was a real emotional upheaval in each of the school districts," said Flood.

To this day, educators connected with the program insist that it was a good idea that simply wasn't given a fair chance.

"I think the experiment was sabotaged. I think it had no time to work," said Flood. He noted that the state rushed into the program with only a few months of planning.

What lessons did North Carolina officials draw from the experiment?

James E. Benfield, former Polk County school superintendent who oversaw the program, said that Maryland would avoid much criticism with careful planning.

"I don't think there's any doubt that you will improve student performance, if it's used well," Benfield said of the extra school days.

And, the proposal may make a comeback in North Carolina where the state superintendent of schools recently proposed lengthening the school year to 200 days.

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