February 2007

School Calendar Controversy

Author: Teresa Fitzgibbons

Remember the days when the school bell didn’t beckon children back to the classroom until after Labor Day? Earlier school start dates have been encroaching upon summer vacations for the past couple of decades. Like their counterparts across the state and other areas of the country, Beaufort County students have become accustomed to heading back to classes in mid-August; but if a newly proposed and highly contentious unified calendar becomes a reality, local students may be saying goodbye to summer vacation at the end of July.

“The critical thing is that people understand this is not a done deal,” stressed newly-elected school board member and Vice Chairman, Bob Arundell.

Since 1995, the district’s schools have been operating under two calendars, with some schools following a traditional school year calendar and others opting for a year-round schedule. Last fall, Interim Superintendent, Dr. Phillip McDaniel, suggested the school board place all of the district’s schools under one calendar, claiming that the two calendar system is financially irresponsible, especially considering the district’s rapid growth. According to McDaniel, it could save roughly $548,000 from the district’s 147 million dollar budget.

In response to McDaniel’s suggestion, the Beaufort County School Board asked him to form a committee of district officials and community members to study the calendar issue, with the objective of either recommending a traditional or year-round calendar or creating a new one. McDaniel would then consider the committee’s proposal and make a recommendation.

The unified calendar that resulted was essentially a compromise that merged aspects of both calendars. Though it’s been referred to as a “hybrid” of traditional and year-round calendars, it more closely resembles a year-round calendar. Students would begin classes on July 30, 2007 and end on May 30, 2008, with two-week breaks in fall, winter, and spring, and a shorter summer break than the traditional calendar offers.

“It’s not necessarily wise to ‘average’ the two calendars, and that’s what occurred,” explained Arundell. “Nobody likes to split the difference. Putting the two calendars together resulted in a calendar that nobody likes.”

With less than half of the county’s schools and only a third of its students on the year-round schedules, the proposal could create an upheaval for the majority of the district’s schools and families, especially those in southern Beaufort County, where year-round schools are the exception, not the norm.

“I know what my constituents feel, and they don’t like it,” said Arundell.

The biggest hurdle to passing a unified calendar is not its unpopularity but its legality. As currently proposed, the unified calendar violates state law.

Last year, the State Legislature passed a law that prevents South Carolina’s public schools from starting prior to the third Monday in August, beginning in 2007. The law was advocated by many coastal communities and business advocates who believe the later start dates benefit the tourism industry. The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce supported the change in state law. It’s also been popular with many families who have experienced dwindling summer vacations. South Carolina’s Attorney General’s Office must decide if they’ll grant a waiver and allow Beaufort County’s schools to begin in late July before McDaniel can even propose the unified calendar to the school board.

“We sent a packet to the state for review to see if the unified calendar was even workable,” said McDaniel. “We’re waiting for their response. They gave no indication how or when they would respond.”

The Beaufort County School Board has the ultimate authority for determining whether or not all schools in the district will follow one calendar, and if so, which one. According to Arundell, McDaniel is considering recommending one of three calendars to the school board: unified, traditional or year-round. “I don’t know yet which calendar I’ll recommend,” McDaniel said in early January. “I need to hear back from the state first.”

When McDaniel makes his recommendation, it will be to a school board that has changed since last November’s elections. After the interim superintendent makes his recommendation, the school board may vote to either adopt the calendar McDaniel recommends, adopt one of the other calendars, or continue operating under two calendars.

“I know what it means and costs to have two calendars,” Arundell said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s wise to move to one calendar right now. People need to understand that this is not a done deal, and that’s all the more reason to speak out. People have called to say they’re against it. I’m glad they called and glad to know it.”

The Pros and Cons of Year-Round School

Thirteen public schools in Beaufort County have adopted year-round schools. These schools are primarily elementary schools, located in the northern half of the county. None of the district’s high schools follow a year-round calendar. South of the Broad, only three elementary schools, Okatie, Bluffton, and Daufuskie, are year-round. Attempts by M.C. Riley and H.E. McCracken to change to a year-round calendar have been voted down by parents and faculty.

Locally, students on year-round calendars begin classes in mid-July, with nine-week sessions followed by three-week breaks, called intercessions. The summer break is about five weeks in length. No definitive research has proven that students perform better academically on year-round calendars. As with everything else, there are pros and cons to year round schooling.

Pros

1. No waiting for summer school. Academic remediation can take place during the school year when it’s needed most.
2. Shorter breaks may increase retention, allowing teachers to spend less time reviewing at the beginning of a new school year.
3. Year round schooling is better for non-English speaking students who often fall behind in the summer because of less exposure to English.
4. Many students report summer boredom, especially those who can’t afford summer camps, enrichment activities and travel.
5. Some teachers and students report less “burnout” because of more frequent breaks.
6. Some families prefer the staggered vacations which better fit their lifestyles and work schedules.
7. Schools that adopt a “multi-track” system can accommodate 20-30 percent more students in one facility.

Cons

1. There is no evidence of increased academic achievement.
2. Students who need and teachers who provide remediation may suffer more “burnout,” as they are in school during intercessions.
3. Retention rates have not been proven to increase. Teachers still need to provide review after intercessions. There are also a lot more “first” and “last” days of school.
4. Athletic, fine arts, and other extracurricular activities scheduling can become a problem.
5. Enrichment activities such as summer camps and family travel may be impacted.
6. Summer employment for students and teachers who rely on the extra income becomes virtually impossible.
7. It may be more challenging for families to arrange for childcare during sporadic three-week breaks than it is for the summer.
8. Maintenance, utilities, and transportation costs may increase.

School Debate - Hilton Head Island SC

Multi-Tracking

In some areas, year round schools have adopted a “multi-track” approach. Students and teachers are organized into three-five rotating groups. One group of teachers and students is always on vacation. This approach has economic benefits: 20-30 percent more students can be accommodated in a school, allowing districts to avoid the expense of new construction. However, the plan is also fraught with problems.

Multi-tracking leaves no space for remediation classes to occur during intercessions. Extracurricular and athletic programs are severely impaired when participants are on different vacation schedules. Staff communication and professional development also suffers. Teachers also have to pack up and move all materials after each session.

Families, especially those who have children on different tracks, may suffer the most havoc from such a system. Family travel without at least one child missing school becomes almost impossible. It can also increase childcare costs for families who must pay for childcare more times during the school year.

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