The well of money that has nourished a program for Beaufort County students in need of extra academic help is about to run dry.
The federal stimulus money used to fund the extra days since 2008 will expire after this school year.
So if the newly elected Beaufort County Board of Education wants to keep extended learning days, it will likely have to tap the school district's general fund to do it. It's a discussion likely to top next year's agenda for the board's new and returning members.
The extra days cost about $1 million per year, according to district officials. Teachers' salaries, transportation and lunches all have to be paid for during the sessions, which typically last 10 days.
The program adds school days to the calendar for students who are scoring in the bottom 25 percent on some standardized tests.
The program typically has included students in grades three through eight; kindergartners also have attended. When it began in the 2008-09 school year, 4,000 students attended. In 2011-12, there were 8,400, and at one time, as many as 13,300 students attended.
Some schools have added as many as 20 extended learning days to their schedules -- five before school started, 10 during fall and spring breaks, and five after school ended.
Students don't necessarily have the same teacher they have during the rest of the school year during extended learning, because teachers choose whether to work the extra days.
This year, only 10 days were built into the calendar for the program -- five in the fall and five in the spring -- because money was dwindling.
Students who have attended the extra days have made progress on reading and math sections of the Measures of Academic Progress exam the district administers, according to district data.
However, it's difficult to say whether extended learning is responsible for those gains. The students could have attended extra tutoring, or a teacher may have been particularly effective that year. It's not a scientific study, district officials say.
"The school district has done many things. (Extended learning) was just one of multiple things done to try to improve student achievement," district chief of instruction service Dereck Rhoads said. "But to narrow it down and say that was the single cause, or the biggest. ... You can't isolate that variable."
The students who have attended extended learning are still behind at every grade level during every year in both reading and math when it comes to average scores.
And results seem to be dipping. Last school year, only first- and second-graders who attended extended learning closed gaps in math.
Reading results have been more positive, though.
Board members are scrutinizing the numbers, and they discussed the program Nov. 20 and Dec. 11.
Some are encouraged by the gains.
Paul Roth, who will be sworn in next month, said the steady improvements in reading indicate the program is working.
Others said they'd like to see more proof the gains are from the program.
Board member Bill Evans has asked for data tracking individual students' progress year after year. District officials say compiling those statistics would be difficult -- it's not usually stored in that way, and different students attend the extra school days every year or every session. If students perform better on the next round of tests, they're no longer in the program.
It's not clear when a decision will be made on whether the program will continue. No extra school days are scheduled for 2013-14.
The school board is expected to discuss extended learning again during its January work session.
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.