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No more snow days in future? Pilot program = 'Maybe'

Arkansas' Catholic schools trying ‘cyber days,’ may become bad-weather norm

Published: January 27, 2014   
Mount St. Mary Academy seniors Therese Dobry (left) and Duyen Ha work on their school-issued laptops. The school issues laptops to all incoming freshmen and the technology has made Cyber Day curriculum possible during bad weather.

Catholic schools in Arkansas have been piloting a program that, if endorsed by its accrediting body, will dramatically change the way inclement weather days are handled in the future.

“Cyber days” combine online educational tools with impressive levels of teacher planning and creativity to help students make the most of days where inclement weather forces cancellation of the regular school day.

Superintendent of schools Vernell Bowen said the 12 Catholic elementary, middle and high schools in central and eastern Arkansas that implemented either one, two to three cyber days this year have provided their collective feedback for consideration by the board of the Arkansas Nonpublic Accrediting Association in April.

“Cyber days is something that the board has discussed for more than a year,” Bowen said. “I can’t predict how the board will vote, but I think cyber days are potentially a good option for our schools, once the board agrees on specific standards and guidelines to maintain accreditation.”

Schools that held cyber days this year are Mount St. Mary Academy, Catholic High School, Our Lady of the Holy Souls School, St. Edward School, St. Theresa School and Christ the King School in Little Rock; Immaculate Heart of Mary School, North Little Rock Catholic Academy and Immaculate Conception School in North Little Rock; St. John School in Hot Springs; St. Paul School in Pocahontas and St. Mary School in Paragould.

The use of cyber days became even more urgent this winter because no snow days were built into the school calendar for the Little Rock and North Little Rock schools. Bowen said three snow days will be included in 2014-2015 calendar, which may convert to cyber days depending on the decision of the ANSAA board. Schools outside Pulaski County are free to craft their calendars to meet local needs.

Bowen said the option of cyber days is preferred over tacking on days at the end of the school year or taking away a scheduled holiday like Presidents Day, which have been the traditional ways to handle it.

“The last two or three days of the school year are not what I would call the full teaching experience as it is,” Bowen said. “Typically, there’s a lot of cleanup, paperwork and special activities.”

Bowen added the addition of snow days back into the calendar helps somewhat because it’s much easier to ratchet back and dismiss days earlier than expected should inclement weather days not be used en route to the required 178 six-hour days required for accreditation.

Maria Dickson, principal at St. Paul School in Pocahontas, agreed. She said adopting such a system in the interest of avoiding lengthening the school year is a popular option for all concerned.

“When we were given the OK to do this, I was on cloud nine,” Dickson said. “Parents are ecstatic that we aren’t adding days and our teachers know that a day added at the end of the year isn’t very productive.”

While the concept of cyber days is simple — provide students assignments to complete at home during the inclement weather day — pulling it off is not. At a meeting of principals Jan. 8, administrators shared best practices for the days, pointed out shortfalls and limitations and provided parental feedback.

Most there reported overwhelming support for the new option from parents; the most common concerns included the access of all students to necessary technology and the type of work being assigned. Some principals pointed out many families in smaller schools may not be able to afford a family computer or Internet access.

The most senior practitioner of the concept — Mount St. Mary — has been implementing cyber days for the past three years. With the head start it has on the other schools in this area, Mount St. Mary has been able to work through some of the operational hiccups identified by the other school principals. For instance, students are given extra time when they return to school to complete assignments if they were without power — therefore without Internet — during the bad weather.

Principal Diane Wolfe said the ability to exercise such online options when needed was one important consideration when the school began handing out laptops to every student in the fall of 2011. She said in addition to linking students with their professors and helping them to connect to assigned websites, cyber day methodology is a good training ground for what many students will face in college.

Dickson said St. Paul School observed three cyber days this year and with each, the school’s processes have been refined. Like Mount St. Mary, assignments do not include new materials, but are a collection of review and reinforcement material for current subject matter.

Two of the most significant improvements the staff has made in the lesson plans are constructing activities that kids can complete without parental help and reducing repetitive assignments by assigning integrated lessons.

“For example, a student might be assigned research to write an essay for social studies,” Dickson said. “In addition to being graded for social studies content, it’s also graded for grammar by the language arts teacher. Or, the student might be instructed to use the current list of vocabulary words in their essay.”

Other teachers have shown similar creativity in their application of cyber day curriculum. When St. Mary School in Paragould had to cancel regular classes Jan. 9, teachers texted or emailed their students’ families that morning to offer assistance with assigned homework. Plus, kindergarten teacher Denise Stoddard accessed her students via Face Time and had the youngsters read to her, some still in their pajamas.

“All feedback so far is very positive,” said Sharon Warren, principal. “Kids like it and parents do too. They even posted on Facebook what they were doing.”

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