Local district takes extraordinary measures to graduate seniors on time

May 26, 2014
It was weather like this, on a day in January, that wreaked havoc on area school schedules this past winter. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

FREDERICKTOWN – Bethlehem-Center School District Superintendent Linda Marcolini faced a dilemma.

The wicked winter weather resulted in 11 snow days, a record for the rural school district in southeastern Washington County. While a few make-up dates were built into the school calendar, Marcolini said there weren’t enough to make up the required 180 school days. So, the decision was made to tack the extra days on to the end of the school year, and push graduation back from May 30 to June 6.

But when parents found out, Marcolini said “pandemonium” sank in.

“I received calls from parents who were concerned about their child’s (summer) job. Others had college visitations or were entering the military and had commitments.”

Marcolini, along with high school principal Aaron Cornell and several teachers, developed a unique plan. Marcolini wrote a letter to the state Department of Education requesting an Act 80 exception, or waiver, to the 180 days of instruction required for students.

In Pennsylvania, all public schools are required to be open for at least 180 days of instruction. High school students must complete 990 hours of instruction. The public school code gives districts until June 30 to make up missed days and makes special provisions for graduating seniors.

With the nasty, snowy weather this winter, many area school districts faced the problem of fitting in make-up days while trying not to delay graduation.

Districts requesting a waiver from the state must provide a school board-approved alternate plan, among other things, for consideration.

“The plan had to be very detailed,” Marcolini said. “The seniors either had to go to school for a 180 days or complete 990 hours of instruction.”

Instead of making seniors complete the 180 days of school, Marcolini focused on the hours of instruction. Seeking the approval of the 2014 senior class, Marcolini held a special assembly to divulge her plan.

“It was going to take a lot of work, and we didn’t want to do it if they weren’t on board.”

She then submitted the plan to the state and was floored when she learned it was approved. Exceptions are granted only as a last resort, according to the Education Department.

So throughout May, Beth-Center’s seniors have been staying after school for one hour each day over the course of 2 1/2 weeks. The seniors also participated in a five-hour Saturday graduation practice and stayed after school May 13 to complete senior exit interviews.

Meanwhile, students in kindergarten through grade 11 are required to make up the additional days, and their final day of school is June 11.

Marcolini was surprised by the level of support she received from the students and their parents.

“It was well worth it to graduate on time,” senior Shelby Urbine said.

Urbine said if graduation would have been delayed, the extra days of school would have affected her job as a lifeguard.

“I would have been able to work around it, but with college coming up, I need all the money I can get.”

Others, like Clarissa Todd, were concerned about vacations.

“We have a paid, planned family vacation in Myrtle Beach,” Todd said. “We probably would have canceled it and lost money in the process.”

Other appreciated the “extra study time” staying late offered.

“I was happy about it,” senior Tanner Michael said. “Who doesn’t want to graduate early? I’m thankful they were able to do this.”

Marcolini said the district now has a plan of action in place if this were to happen again.

“I saved everything in a binder,” she said

Although Beth-Center went to extreme measures, it wasn’t alone in petitioning the state for an exception for the senior class. A number of districts in Washington County petitioned the Education Department to waive the requirement for 180 days of instruction.

In Greene County, four of the five districts were forced to move back graduation dates, originally scheduled for May 30, in order to make up snow days.

Charleroi Area School District acting superintendent Reid Smith said the district applied for an Act 80 waiver so the seniors didn’t have to attend school until June 10 like other kids in the district. Graduation is June 6.

“We had five snow days, and were able to make them all up but two. Those two we just tacked on to the end of the school year,” Smith said.

At Fort Cherry School District, Superintendent Robert Dinnen said the district “used every available day “ to maintain graduation on June 6.

“If we would have closed one more day, we would have had to move (graduation) to the next week,” Dinnen said.

Brownsville School District had the second highest number of snow days with 10. Superintendent Philip Savini said he applied for an Act 80 exception, which was granted.

“Last day of school for all students would have been June 2,” he said. “Now the last day is June 12. Graduation is set for June 6.”

Like the other districts, Savini said Brownsville used every possible day available as a make-up day.

Other schools in the area were either able to fit in make-up days and keep graduation as scheduled or move it back a few days. Looking back, Marcolini is just thankful things worked in B-C’s favor.

“The state, they really stepped up.”

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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