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No longer will a January ice storm or an April flood automatically push the end of an Arkansas school year into the heat of June to compete with graduations, vacations, camps, baseball or even summer school.

A total of 121 of the state's traditional and charter school systems -- almost half -- now have for the first time plans for making school days out of days when snow, ice, high water, utility failures and contagious disease cause school buildings to be closed.

Thanks in part to technology but also to just planning ahead, students in many an iced-in Arkansas district this winter will have up to five days of paper and/or electronic lessons -- along with email or phone access to their teachers -- to occupy a portion of their time at home.

Act 862, passed by lawmakers earlier this year, allows public school districts and open-enrollment charter schools to develop plans for an "alternative method of instruction" to be used on days when school is canceled because of emergency or exceptional circumstances.

Districts that have state-approved plans include Little Rock, North Little Rock, Bentonville, Springdale, Jonesboro, Conway, Cabot, Glen Rose and Paris. Academics Plus and LISA Academy charter schools systems also are on the list of systems receiving approval.

Reps. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma, and Kim Hammer, R-Benton, sponsored the bill after Douglas learned at an education innovation conference of a such an initiative in Kentucky. That started in 2011 as the Snow Bound Pilot and is now the Non-Traditional Instruction Program.

"They said they had had great success with it," Douglas recalled recently. "The teachers loved it and the administrators, the parents and the students did, too. I thought, 'That's a win-win.' We never have a bill where everybody really likes it."

The short Arkansas law is similar to the Kentucky law with some tweaks, Douglas said.

"We called it 'alternative method of instruction' instead of a snow days bill because we wanted to convey that it will cover schools like Vilonia, which has been hit so hard by tornadoes, and some of our schools have been hit with flooding," Douglas said. "We occasionally have a school that will have to close for a flu epidemic, and then there are electricity outages and fires, too."

Some of the biggest questions in Kentucky and in Arkansas centered on how best to credit teachers and other employees with a workday when schools are closed and how to cope with different levels of available technology in the homes of students, Douglas said.

Districts addressed those matters in their proposed plans sent by Oct. 1 to the Arkansas Department of Education for approval. The state window has since been reopened for submission of additional plans, making it possible that more school districts could be approved in early 2018.

Typically the district plans call for teachers to make themselves available by phone or email to their students, and to monitor student work online during what would be regular school hours. The plans also envision teachers using the unexpected time away from students and classrooms to do lesson planning, grading and even online professional development to receive credit for a day's work. The plans generally call for teachers to keep records of that work.

As for addressing the varying levels of technology in students' homes, school districts are taking a range of approaches.

The mountainous, 670-square-mile Jasper School District, for example, is all but skipping technology and going with envelopes of lessons to be sent home with students in the next few weeks, in advance of the harshest of the winter months.

"A significant number of students in the Jasper School District have no access to computer or the Internet at home," the school district's state-approved alternative-method-of-instruction plan states.

"Therefore, basing our district plan on a 'digital day' approach would be both inequitable and unworkable. To meet the needs of all our students the assignments must provide creative solutions for overcoming the limited resources our students have at home," the plan says.

William Morelan, Jasper's curriculum coordinator, said the state legislation is welcomed in the north Arkansas district where school buses can sink to their axles on muddy roads and where inclement weather in 2013-14 closed campuses for up to 25 days. The Jasper district encompasses the far-flung and exceedingly rural Oark and Kingsland communities as well as Jasper.

"It's a big deal for us and it's an opportunity for kids to do something meaningful on those days when they can't be in school," Morelan said.

"Anything project-based is really good," Morelan said about the teacher-developed alternative lessons.

"We want them to keep it fun but also meaningful. The lessons have to be tied to state education standards. A lot of these kids might be home alone. Everything has to be written in such a way that a child can simply pull out the packet that says day one and easily figure out what they are supposed to do. That's been a struggle, especially at the lower grades, but teachers have come up with some creative ideas."

The packets will include everything students need to do their assignments, Morelan said, be it a paperclip, a rubber band or a paperback book.

A Jasper science lesson for first-graders on the five senses will ask children to explore and write about ice and snow. Fifth-graders will be asked to experiment with the rules of gravity using a glass of water and a piece of cardboard. A 10th-grade business education activity will call on students to write about nonverbal communication and how it can help or hurt in achieving life goals.

A contrast to Jasper is the Pulaski County Special School District, where each student has been assigned a computing device for schoolwork. All but the youngest will be expected to use those devices on a snow day. Kindergartners through second-graders who don't generally take their school-assigned iPads home will be provided with packets of paper lessons.

The Pulaski Special district is uploading a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. publisher-developed app onto student Chromebooks. Most students will be able to use the app to tap into appropriate grade level schoolwork -- English , math, science and social studies -- at home. They can turn in the work the same day, which will count as attending school.

"Our goal is that when we leave here for Christmas it is going to be up and ready to roll," interim Superintendent Janice Warren said but added that the plan is a work in progress as it is being rolled out to principals and teachers for fine-tuning.

Lessons in physical education, special education, gifted education, fine arts and career technical education also will be provided for students who are in those courses or are receiving those services. The fine-arts lessons, at least to start, will be sent home in packets, said Jo Ann Koehler, the Pulaski Special district's director of fine arts.

"It's all things they can do without technology," Koehler said of fine arts for elementary pupils. "Some of the lessons will play upon what is happening outside, such as describing a snowman or drawing a snow scene. We might ask you to build a fort in your house and describe how you did it, all of which are based on fine-arts standards."

Older students who are enrolled in the district's band and orchestra programs may be asked to practice certain scales or excerpts of music for upcoming competitions on their instruments, Koehler said. Students will record those practice sessions on their Chromebooks to play back for teachers upon the return to school.

In the Wilson-based Rivercrest School District in east Arkansas, the wind chill may be in the single digits and the roads impassable someday soon. On that day, kindergartners through 12th-graders will be sheltered at their homes and will earn school credit by reading the sweet- and sunny-sounding The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies.

"It's a economic literacy book and Economics Arkansas has quite a lot of already-planned activities that we are going to use as a guide for further development," Rivercrest Superintendent Sally Bennett said.

"The possibilities are pretty endless with what you can do with a good piece of literature."

District and school leaders already have met to develop work for the first "alternative method of instruction" day. One day of lessons will be done before the Christmas break, Bennett said.

"Should we have inclement weather predicted, those lessons will be downloaded and packets will be ready to go. On that very first AMI day, teachers will spend time developing the next AMI lessons. We're going to try to stay one step ahead.

"Of course, this is new and we may have some bumps along the way. We're going to be flexible about it," she added.

The school districts also describe their plans for nonteaching employees on the days when schools are closed. The plans vary according to the job, with some employees being required to work and others adding makeup days into the school year. Makeup days could be used for training sessions, taking inventory or mentoring students.

"It's not a mandate," Douglas said. "It's up to the school to come up with a plan. I just thought it would work."

Douglas, the state legislator, believes the alternative-method-of-instruction days will prove to be successful.

"I think it can be a whole lot better than sending everyone to school in June, after all the state-required tests are done and everybody is tired," the retired educator said.

"If anyone wants to tell me that there is more learning going on in June than there is with this program, I would get in a debate with you," she said.

Metro on 11/25/2017

Print Headline: State OKs 121 plans for snowed-in pupils

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  • Foghorn
    November 25, 2017 at 2:19 p.m.

    So this is both disturbing but also filled with opportunity. In the disturbing category, the primary concern seems to be how teachers get ‘credit’ rather than whether students actually learn. It’s also disturbing how so many students don’t have internet access at home. It begs the question how they even do homework, let alone how they stay current when not in the classroom. That’s also an opportunity for some smart people somewhere with WalMart money behind them to fix that problem. WalMart should also back a plan to create VILT (virtual instructor led training) which students should be able to download in class - while connected to internet - but still access while offline. These courses should have associated ‘knowledge checks’ which students can submit online or via snail mail.

  • Foghorn
    November 25, 2017 at 2:27 p.m.

    Luckily, climate change will likely reduce any significant need to protect lazy teachers and legislators from having to conjure ways for students to learn from home.