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Willmar, Minn., School Board agrees to start elementary schools 15 minutes earlier in 2013-14

WILLMAR -- Elementary students in Willmar will begin their learning 15 minutes earlier in the next school year.

The School Board voted Monday afternoon to start school at 8:15 a.m. in the district's elementary schools, beginning in September. That will add 15 minutes to each school day.

Students will be expected to be in their seats, "ready to learn" at 8:15, said Cheryl Nash, the district's director of teaching and learning.

Teachers are already in their classrooms and students are eating breakfast at 8:15, she said, but the new schedule will require teachers to add an academic focus to breakfast time. The district provides breakfast free for all students in grades K-8.

Human Resources Director Liz Fischer said the new schedule will not require a change in the contract.

Some teachers already do some academic work while students are eating breakfast, Fischer said, and the staff will be building on that.

With the new start time, students may be dropped off at school at 7:50 a.m., and buses will arrive by 8:05, so students can be in their classrooms at 8:15 a.m.

Fischer said they are also working with the nutrition program to make the breakfasts "more classroom friendly."

Because the state ranks both of Willmar's elementary schools as struggling schools, the Minnesota Department of Education wants them to have longer school days.

"That will give us, we think, the increased learning time we're required," Nash said. An effort to offer extended time at the end of the school day didn't reach enough students.

The longer day will be reflected in an application for a second School Improvement Grant for Kennedy Elementary.

The board approved the grant application Monday. Kennedy has been working with a $500,000 SIG this year.

The SIG was awarded to several Minnesota schools that were struggling in several areas.

In state rankings unveiled a year ago, the state classified Kennedy as a Priority School, ranking it in the lowest 5 percent of schools in achievement and achievement gap measures.

Priority schools were eligible to apply for the School Improvement Grant funding.

Roosevelt Elementary School is classified as a Focus School, which means it is listed in the 10 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps. Roosevelt's scores in state rankings are higher than Kennedy's, and Focus schools are not eligible for the grant program.

Both schools have developed similar turnaround plans for their buildings. When Kennedy received the SIG, the district was able to use local funding to develop some of the same programming at Roosevelt.

The programming includes instructional coaches for teachers in reading and math, professional learning communities to help teachers analyze test data and discuss new approaches for reaching struggling students. A small army of paraprofessionals called interventionists worked through the year to help students in reading and math.

Mid-year results indicated that the programs are having a positive effect on students and their scores.

Nash said the new SIG application seeks nearly $600,000 to continue implementing the new programs.

One of the proposals is to hire more reading teachers, she said, and to increase the work of the professional learning committees.

Board member Linda Mathiasen said she was glad to see the school district asking for more money, because she has seen other school districts get similar funding when they have fewer students. Both of Willmar's elementary schools have more than 900 students.

"We have a large student body compared with other Priority schools, and we're getting the job done," she said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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