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DULUTH — Students in Duluth's middle and high schools will see a return to the seven-period day next year, a schedule that was long lost to budget cuts.

Middle school students haven't had a seventh period for more than a decade, and in high schools it's been 20 years. But legislative changes to middle school arts requirements forced district leaders to examine their offerings. They discovered they couldn't easily meet those new requirements within the existing middle school schedule, said Jen Larva, the district's teaching, learning and equity director.

It would have taken away valuable middle school opportunities like world languages, she said, and "it didn't do anything better for kids."

Instead, they built a model that more carefully considers the age-appropriate needs of those students. And with approval of a $2.6 million annual levy increase last fall, district leaders promised a high school schedule change, too.

But with the rejection of the district's second request this school year for a technology-focused levy increase, some wonder how long the investment will last. The district faces a $6.4 million deficit going into the next year and is dipping into its reserves to help cover it.

"I don't want to have to go back to my teachers in a year or two and say, 'Guess what. This is too expensive. We can't afford to do it,'" said Ethan Fisher, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers.

Students and teachers have long wanted the schedule to return. At the district's two high schools, a voluntary period at the start of the day was meant to replace the lopped-off seventh period. But because the district didn't provide transportation, it wasn't an equitable offering.

The reduction in periods led to competition for electives and advanced courses, of which fewer choices were offered throughout the day than required courses. Families and students complained of lost opportunity for college preparation, and unfair advantages to those who could get to school early on their own.

"I was always hopeful [the longer day] would come back," Fisher said, "but I didn't know if I would ever see it in my career with Duluth."

Middle school students, too, will have more chances to explore different subjects, such as the Ojibwe language and outdoor education. And with the move to a middle school model instead of one that mimics high school, students will be able to connect with teachers on specific areas a couple of days a week during allocated time.

If they need extra support, they can get that during that time instead of being pulled out of class, said Lincoln Park Middle School Principal Brian Kazmierczak. And the same goes for enrichment in any subject area.

"We just acknowledged that the middle school age is a tremendous developmental period in a kid's life," he said. "We want to support them and truly make a middle school a middle school."

Educators are still working on high school schedule changes and have learned they need to add more electives. More than 400 students at East High School signed up for an introduction to foods course that could only serve 50 students next year, Larva said.

New courses are in the works, including those with a focus on global and Indigenous sports, the Anishinaabe of Lake Superior and diverse perspectives in literature.

District leaders have heard repeatedly that high school students and their families want more opportunities, Larva said, "so we're trying to honor that."

Duluth is adding when other districts are cutting, Larva said, so it will look to trim costs where it can to make it work.