Snow days call for flexibility in Farmington

To make up school day, Farmington students will be assigned Presidents Day weekend projects

by Jennifer Chick
Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

As the calendar flips to February, Farmington Area School District students have already missed five days of school due to below-zero temperatures. That has made the district look at new ways to keep their students on track.

“I hate to break it to you,” Superintendent Jay Haugen wrote in a letter to parents last week, “but we are only half-way through winter. As you know, we have already missed five days of school due to the weather, and given the ongoing forecast, there could be more.”

Because of that, the district has decided to introduce what it is calling flexible learning days. This is possible, in part, because of the district’s comprehensive digital learning platform involving iPads for each student in the district. With a flexible learning day, teachers will provide their students with a day of learning that can be done anytime and anywhere. In the letter, Haugen said the opportunities will be customized by age and level.

School districts have control of their calendars but must meet minimum attendance requirements set by the state. Typically, Farmington would need to make up student days by adding to the end of the school year in June, but because of the digital platform, and because of flexibility as a state-designated innovation zone, the district is trying this new approach. Farmington was designated as an innovation zone by the Minnesota Department of Education, which means the district can try new programs with less red tape and paperwork from the state.

For this flexible learning trial, Haugen said students will have a window of time to complete their work, starting on Presidents Day weekend. On Monday, Feb. 17, the students will not be in school for Presidents Day, but the district will record this as a regular school day since they will be assigned projects to complete at home, or wherever they may be over that weekend.

“We do want the state to recognize this because it is an actual school day,” Haugen said. “As an innovation zone, this is exactly the type of thing we are trying out.”

“A successful trial would mean that we could provide this opportunity for a whole host of situations, including some portion of the remaining days lost to inclement weather,” Haugen wrote in the letter to parents.

On Jan. 28, when students were out of school for their fifth weather-related closing, Farmington teachers attended school to talk about how flexible learning could occur with their students.

“It’s things that teachers have wanted to do for awhile, but they didn’t have the time or the people to do that,” said Dan Pickens, Farmington’s head of instructional technology.

He said flexible learning could include Google Hangout opportunities to discuss class projects or extra assignments that encompass multiple subject areas into one project. A recent survey by the district found that 95 percent of students have Wi-Fi availability at home.

Students from middle school through high school have their own iPads, which they bring home every day. Fourth- and fifth-grade students also bring iPads home.

The younger students leave their iPads at school, but Pickens said there would be opportunities for those students to bring their iPads home over the weekend as they work on these flexible learning opportunities. Also, he said all of the flexible learning does not have to be digital.

“We’re wanting this to be flexible too with what the teachers want to do as long as they are rich learning experiences,” Pickens said.

Currently, the district uses Schoology, a digital learning management system through a website where teachers create courses on that website. Teachers can also use Google Apps for Education. Pickens thinks the possibilities are endless as the district digs deeper into what flexible learning can mean.

“We’ve missed five learning days, and these kids need to continue to learn,” Pickens said. “We need to continue even if the weather is bad.”