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A sign announcing the early release of students is shown outside Canyon Lake Elementary School on Wednesday afternoon. 

Early-release Wednesdays are inching toward the chopping block in the Rapid City school district.

Working at the behest of Superintendent Lori Simon, a task force of teachers and principals has been discussing possible alternatives to the practice of releasing students from school early on Wednesdays. The task force is expected to unveil a set of recommendations to the Rapid City school board in the near future.

Whatever those recommendations turn out to be, Simon is making her stance clear.

“I would find it challenging to support any continuance of the early-release structure,” she said in an interview with the Journal.

Adopted by district officials in 2012, the rationale behind letting students out of school an hour and a half to two hours early on Wednesdays is that educators would use that time for professional developmental activities. The concept is popular in other school districts in the state and across the nation.

But the early-release day has created its own problems for parents, educators and district officials in the last few years. The logistics of transporting and keeping students occupied and safe once they get out of school early on a midweek day had proven difficult for some parents.

The early-release day has had one other negative side effect that Simon can’t ignore.

“Wednesday is usually the best attendance day for schools, and that used to be the case for us in Rapid,” she said. “With the early-release Wednesdays, we are seeing it have a very negative impact. It’s now one of our worst attendance days.”

Rapid City schools already suffer from some of the worst attendance in the nation, and fixing that problem has been one of Simon’s top priorities since she took the helm in July.

Holly Rice is a mother of three high school students. A marketing executive, she was able to stop by school on Wednesdays and pick up her kids when they were younger with relative ease. She knows this is not the case for many parents whose work schedules aren’t as flexible.

“Why are we making it so hard for parents?” she said. “It’s already a struggle when you’re trying to manage a bunch of kids and go to work.”

Though her situation is better than some, Rice dislikes early-release Wednesdays.

“It’s just such an interruption in their learning time,” she said.

Her kids were involved in extracurricular activities that sometimes resulted in their being absent on Fridays to attend events out of town. For her kids to miss an entire day of instruction, along with an hour — maybe two — on Wednesdays was a less than ideal arrangement, Rice said.

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The seemingly random nature of early-release Wednesdays can also be frustrating. Sometimes they don’t happen at all. If, for instance, there is a holiday earlier or later in the week that gives students a day off from school, then officials let students out at the normal time Wednesday. As a parent, keeping track isn’t always easy, Rice said.

Neither is having to pick up multiple kids from multiple schools, Rice said, especially when not every school releases at the same time. For some schools, the day ends at 1:15 p.m. For others, it’s 1:20 or 1:30.

“I often felt like a schizophrenic,” Rice said. “It doesn’t benefit anyone. It might benefit the teachers in that they get some of that time, which is desperately needed, and I understand that. But it doesn’t help the parents or the kids who lose that learning time. ... There has to be a better way.”

But Abby Karn, a parent and former teacher, disagrees.

“I love early Wednesday release, especially for elementary students,” she said. “It gives the kids a nice break in the week to reset and come back for the rest of the week. As a teacher, I enjoyed them. It was nice to have the afternoon to meet with my other team members and discuss students and where they were, what they were struggling with and hear if other team members were having the same problems with the lessons.”

Gabrielle Seeley teaches language arts and visual arts at Rapid City High School. She loses 40 minutes from each class period on early-release Wednesdays. Her students like it, and she values the extra time she gets to brainstorm ways to strengthen instruction with fellow teachers in her department.

“We talk about what areas our students need to improve, and then find ways to get that improvement in their performance,” she said.

The time is essential, Seeley said, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be on Wednesdays.

“I know we can do this work together on any day,” she said. “I can envision other days of the week working for this professional development and collaboration.”

She would prefer to hold professional development sessions on Fridays.

“This could allow families to plan some special trips or events without having to excuse their kids from a school day,” she said. “Overall, this could have a positive effect on attendance.”

Early-release Wednesdays are just one part of the conversation being held by the task force, whose main goal is to find better ways to offer professional development to teachers. Whatever the task force puts forth, Simon is ready for a change.

“I look forward to seeing the proposals that come my way," she said, "and hopefully to find a model and a calendar that will not only meet the needs of our teachers but will also better meet the needs of our students and parents.”

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