The Activity Period

State auditor raises question of paying two contracts concurrently; Dept. of Ed. says it would need to follow up with HCS regarding hours

    HARLAN – Questions about the Harlan Community Schools’ middle and high school end of instructional day activity period remain this week as district administration moves forward with its elimination amid resistance from coaches and some in the community.
    Also offering insight are the Iowa State Auditor’s Office and Iowa Department of Education (DOE), further muddying the situation with questions of whether teaching and coaching contracts should overlap and be paid concurrently for that period, and whether the district can use those activity hours toward its total as required by the state.
    HCS Superintendent of Schools Lynn Johnson tried to explain further the decision to eliminate the activity hour permanently next year in an email to the community last Friday.  
    The move came after some coaches expressed their disappointment and resistance with that administrative decision at the previous school board meeting on April 12.
    “The middle school and high school activity period topic is more complicated and nuanced than the parents and patrons may realize,” Johnson said in the email.

Resistance
    Five coaches addressed the school board saying the move to eliminate the activity period could lower participation in extra-curricular activities, change what makes Harlan Community successful and unique, reduce quality family time, and put added stress on students involved in activities in the Harlan Community Schools.
    The activity period has been in place for approximately 50 years up until the past two years.   Its history dates back to when the district was consolidated with the seven area communities.  Promises were made at that time to get children home earlier after athletic practices due to travel time, and to allow for needed, quality family time.
    In 2019-20 the high school reduced the athletic practice time (activity period) to 30 minutes and it ran opposite academic support while maintaining shorter class periods, explained Johnson.
    This current year, the high school eliminated the academic support time and the athletic practice time (activity period) altogether from the instructional day to maximize minutes in the eight class periods, and to address the loss of learning that resulted from the pandemic.
    The middle school has continued to retain the full athletic practice time activity period the past two years, but moving forward both the high school and middle school are set to have the same schedule to more adequately share staff and increase course offerings at the middle level, said Johnson.  There is no activity period at the elementary school.
    By eliminating the activity period from the instructional day, sports practices that have traditionally met the final period of the school day in addition to after school likely will get pushed to fully after school, much like most school districts in Iowa.

Explanation
    Johnson said while such an activity period may have been more common decades ago, her inquiries of other schools and the DOE show HCS as one of the few if not the only district in Iowa counting athletic practice as instructional time at the high school level.
    “Making changes to the daily schedule is in no way a reflection on the past but rather an opportunity in the present,” Johnson said.  “The needs of students, school accountability, and best practice research regarding educational practice is continually changing.
    “Based on our community engagement sessions, our patrons and internal stakeholders identified continued emphasis on vocational training awareness, learning opportunities for our students, ensuring that students are college ready, and maintaining academic stability, strength, and variety as priority issues.”
    Emphasizing the importance of quality extra-curricular programs and participation also is a priority, she said.
    “Creating academic opportunities while honoring extra-curricular expectations is a complex task for educational experts,” she said.
    During the current year without the activity period, the district has been able to ensure that all high school students get eight academic periods.  It allowed 160 student athletes the ability to take two additional classes and 86 student athletes were able to take one additional class.
    “Over a four-year span that equates to a significant amount of learning opportunity and content exposure,” Johnson explained.  “This year, 192 of our juniors and seniors have taken advantage of face-to-face college courses, 75 students are taking online courses during a scheduled study hall, and eight students are currently enrolled in the college industrial tech academy at the IWCC Harlan site.”
    HCS will continue to evaluate its programs and practices to best position students for the future, she said.

Questions
    Johnson admits arguably there have been benefits to having athletic practice during the instructional day.  Athletes and coaches have gotten home earlier in the evening.  High school athletes also in jazz band had additional time to fit in both activities.
    And she admits that has become more difficult this year to balance both athletics and jazz band.
    At the middle school level which has had the activity period, students who must ride the bus home could still participate in part of the athletic practice, which kept them engaged and connected.
    Yet there are other considerations outside academics regarding the activity period, such as teacher contractual implications that administrators consider when making decisions regarding school day schedule and work time configuration, Johnson said.
    The Iowa State Auditor’s Office says no public employees should be collecting pay for two jobs for the same hour.
    “The district should consult with their auditor and attorney to review contracts and determine if that is happening,” the office said in a statement.  
    “It may also be worth determining if there are any compliance issues regarding the number of instructional hours being received by the student athletes that have an activity period scheduled into the school day.”
    The DOE said it doesn’t collect information or monitor school schedules regarding such activity periods, and would need to follow up with HCS before making a determination on whether activity period hours can be counted as part of the 1,080 hours of required instructional time.
    Johnson said prior to making determinations on the status of the activity period, the district did consult with the DOE regarding instructional hours, and also contacted its independent auditors who directed the district to the school attorney to review contracts for compliance.
    “We learned that local educational agencies have latitude on determining instructional hours within the parameters set by the state, though our current practice is not common or recommended practice,” she said.  “Our lawyer indicates that our current coaching and teaching contractual practices are legal.”
    Johnson added that she’s sure that over the past 50 years the format of the daily schedule has changed to respond to student needs, and there will continue to be changes as the district moves into the future.
    “The past two years have proven that, to continue to be successful, we need to be open to being both flexible and growth oriented,” she said.

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