Apache Junction Unified School District going back to five-day academic calendar; high school students staged protest

Reader-submitted photo of Apache Junction High School students protesting the change to a five-day academic calendar.

[Update 2: An Apache Junction resident, apparently a student from Apache Junction High School, has started an online petition to ask the Apache Junction Unified School District Governing Board to reverse its decision to go back to a five-day, Monday-Friday academic calendar for 2018-19. Related link: https://apachejunctionindependent.com/education/online-petition-seeks-to-encourage-school-district-to-go-back-to-four-day-week/]

[Update: Students from Apache Junction High School protested the change to a five-day academic calendar today, Feb. 14, according to local residents and confirmed by the school district. “About 100 students are part of the protest. Students are subject to discipline for causing a disruption. There have been no arrests or injuries and police and school administrators are on the scene right now,” Sally Marks, Apache Junction Unified School District public information officer, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “The students are standing in the rain, mostly horsing around. No signs. No chanting. They will be able to get on the school bus or use their regular mode of transportation at the end of the school day,” she said.]

The Apache Junction Unified School District Governing Board voted 4-1 Feb. 13 to approve a five-day, Monday-Friday modified calendar for 2018-19. The district has had a four-day, Monday-Thursday schedule for the last three years. The board in a separate vote tabled until the Feb. 27 meeting discussion on a 2018-19 salary schedule for staff members.

Voting for the change to a five-day academic calendar were governing board President Jodi Ehrlich, Vice President Dena Kimble and board members Michael Weaver and Cami Garcia. Voting no was board member Christa Rizzi.

New to the 2018-19 calendar are nine early release K-12 days for professional development embedded in teachers’ contracts. Parent-teacher conferences, which are now only offered at the elementary schools, will also be provided at the junior high and high schools in the new five-day calendar.

Presently elementary school students start at 8:30 a.m. and junior-high and high school students start at 6:50 a.m. The new five-day modified schedule has elementary school students starting at 8:45 a.m. and junior-high and high school students starting at 7:50 a.m.

A committee of parents, community members and AJUSD staff and administrators held six meetings beginning in September to, in part, compare traditional and modified four-day and five-day schedules. The committee at a meeting Dec. 12 recommended that the school board approve a four-day traditional student academic calendar. [See a related story and video at https://apachejunctionindependent.com/education/4-day-traditional-student-academic-calendar-proposed/]

Ten parents – some who were also teachers – and community members spoke about the four- or five-day academic calendars during a public-comment section of the Feb. 13 meeting.

Cathy Limongello, a parent of two AJUSD students and a member of the calendar committee, said longer school days mean children don’t get enough sleep.

“They typically go to bed at night at 10 p.m., sometimes 11,” she said of her children. “The 11 o’clock is sometimes based on them doing homework. They wake up at 5 because they have to be at the bus stop at 5:45. And right now they’re not getting home until after 6:30 because they participate in after-school sports. So right there they are already like 12.5-hour days and then they come home and do whatever they need to do (with) homework.”

Kathy Allyn, a parent and a member of the calendar committee, said the four-day schedule is the best so Fridays can be used for doctor and personal appointments that might otherwise require a student to be absent from school.

“I see the four-day week as an innovative opportunity that we can use to improve our state standing and test scores. I see it as an excellent opportunity for targeted tutoring and credit recovery,” she said.

Prior to the vote, board member Mr. Weaver said the four-day calendar was initially approved to be an incentive for teachers and district staff members.

“It continues to be said that we went to a four-day week for financial reasons. We were certainly in a financial difficulty, there’s no question about that, but the financial savings were never projected to be significant,” he said. “The calendar change was made as an attempt to retain teachers, quite frankly, and to retain staff. And we can argue all night long as to whether that was successful or not.”

He had hoped that the district could pay district staff what they deserved or at least competitively, he said.

“We are not competitive. We’re not competitive because we have been repeatedly rejected by our public the funds that we need to adequately operate a school district,” he said.

Voters on Nov. 3, 2015, denied a proposed override or increase of up to 15 percent to the district’s maintenance and operations budget. The district’s first override passed in 1999 and was renewed in 2003. Further votes failed in May 2007 and November 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2014.

Prior to the vote on the five-day academic calendar, Vice President Kimble thanked the calendar committee members for their work.

“I know you guys put in a lot of work, a lot of hours, a lot of research,” she said.

Salaries need to be increased for district staff members, Vice President Kimble said.

“The things that I believe are going to really help is working on the salaries, working on retirement, working on things you really need. I mean, Friday off? Yeah, great. You need money,” she said.

“As a parent, the four-day for me didn’t work,” Vice President Kimble said. “My priority is educating students. And as a board member, my job is to do what’s in the best interest of the child(ren) and for me, a quality education is the most important thing.

Prior to the vote, board member Ms. Rizzi said the school district must find a way to offer competitive salaries to staff members.

“We’re not getting the money from the governor, as he promises. It’s just not happening. We have to find a way to be competitive and that four-day was a way to do it. Any staff member can go across the border and make more and still have the five-day,” she said.

“I think it’s important that we take the data that was shown to us along with the recommendations from the committee seriously. I feel like putting the committee in place and saying ‘Thank you committee for your hard work, but…’ is kind of a slap in the face to the work and the time that was put into that. I feel that it’s a lack of trust. We put these people, these community members, these teachers, these educators that actually work boots-on-the-ground with our kids in place and I feel that by not taking them at their word, you know, is not trusting them,” Ms. Rizzi said.

Go to https://az01901895.schoolwires.net/Page/12000 for AJUSD board documents including the proposed four- and five-day academic calendars. The agenda is at https://az01901895.schoolwires.net/Page/9081.

The governing board generally meets at 6 p.m. the second and fourth Tuesdays in the board room at 1575 W. Southern Ave.

The Apache Junction Unified School District serves more than 4,500 students in a 217-square mile area that includes the city of Apache Junction, Gold Canyon, Peralta Trail, Queen Valley and the unincorporated areas of the Superstition Mountain foothills. The K-12 district was formed in 1952. For more information, call 480-982-1110, visit www.ajusd.org or go to www.facebook.com/ajusd43.

The five-day modified school calendar approved for the 2018-19 school year. (Graphic courtesy of AJUSD)

Editor Richard Dyer can be reached at rdyer@newszap.com

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