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Hawaii ends shortened school year with no deal to restore class time next year

HONOLULU (AP) — When Hawaii ran short on money, it made students and teachers pay by slashing 17 Fridays from the school calendar, resulting in three-day weekends and the nation's shortest school year.

More than 170,000 students in the nation's only statewide school district spent their so-called "furlough Fridays" playing video games, roaming the mall or studying at home. But that ends Friday , the last day off of the school year.

After missing so much class time, students, educators and parents are evaluating what they've lost. They hope the state's elected leaders and teachers union will strike a deal to prevent furloughs next school year, when 17 more days off are scheduled in a public education system that already ranks below most other states.

Discussions to restore next year's school calendar have moved slowly, but the parties are closer than they've ever been.

Assessing the damage of a shortened school year will take time. Standardized test results won't come in until July, and even then educators won't be able to directly connect student performance to furlough days.

What's clear is that teachers have had to compromise their normal teaching agenda to fit their curriculum into a 163-day school year. Most school districts nationwide have 180 school days.

The effects of furlough days are evident at Niu Valley Middle School in East Honolulu, where attendance in after-school study halls has jumped, more students have sought counseling due to stress and teachers have modified their lesson plans, said Principal Justin Mew.

"In standard lessons, you teach the concept and provide activities to practice those concepts," Mew said. "What teachers have done is teach much less of those drills and practice, and they've concentrated on the conceptual levels. Students have had to figure it out."

In Bebi Davis' chemistry and physics classes at Farrington High School, just west of downtown Honolulu, she's had to reduce lab work and experiments that help students understand what they're learning from lectures and textbooks. Some of her students created their own name for furlough Fridays: "blah days."

"I've taken out some of the hands-on stuff I wish we could have done. I'm just trying to cover the basics," said Davis, Hawaii's 2009 Teacher of the Year. "I'm trying to crunch a little more into every day."

School closures arose from prolonged labor negotiations between the teachers union and the state, which was facing a $1 billion projected budget shortfall.

The result was a labor contract approved in October that furloughed teachers on 17 days this school year and next, which corresponded to a loss in pay amounting to about 8 percent. Republican Gov. Linda Lingle later said she regretted agreeing to the contract amid widespread criticism from parents who were distraught over the loss of educational time.

Since then, everyone has been looking for a way out.

A group of outraged parents and college students staged a weeklong, day-and-night sit-in at Lingle's office last month, urging her to reach a deal. Instead, 20 of them were given trespassing citations, and four were arrested.

"We want to make sure the issue stays alive," said Olga Boric-Lubecke, a parent of two and electrical engineering professor at the University of Hawaii, after pleading not guilty this week. "Instructional material is falling through the cracks. There's no time for remedial teaching. The students are falling behind, and there's no time to help them out."

The group, called Save Our Schools, plans to end a year of furloughs with a teach-in at the state Capitol on Friday, featuring educational activities on astronomy, math, biology, engineering, arts and civics.

In the negotiations about the school year beginning in August, teachers have agreed to give up six of their planning days if the state spends money to end the other 11 furlough days. The Democrat-run Legislature passed a bill appropriating $67 million to end all of next year's furlough days, but Lingle has said spending that much money isn't fair to taxpayers.

She intends to release only $57 million. That leaves the state without an agreement to end furloughs.

Students understand that they're losing out during four-day school weeks, but they also enjoy the extra days off.

"It's stupid because it's taking away our education," said Farrington sophomore Daniel Prescott. But he did see an upside. "I get to rest, stay home and watch TV."

Said Kandilyn Savedra, a freshman at Farrington, "I don't like it because we learn less in school and we have to do more homework. "We skip through things really fast."

Hawaii's public education system will remain endangered in future years because its funding is dependent on the whims of the economy, said Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi. When the economy goes sour, tax revenues drop and education gets shortchanged because Hawaii's statewide school district relies on general funds instead of more stable sources such as property taxes, which are used in most other school districts.

"I don't think we've made any progress," Toguchi said. "We have to be better able to weather this kind of economic storm in the future. That's the lesson I've learned in the past year."

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