Rethinking the School Calendar
Published in ChicagoNow, February 23, 2015
A recent posting on the Evanston, Illinois Parent Facebook page exclaimed, “According to weather report, -4 at 8AM with -19 wind-chill. ACK!!! I’m not sure we can take another snow day!” Others responded like folks suffering from PTSD. The consensus was that they and their kids could not handle more days off of school, and that going to school beyond the new last day of June 9 would be a disaster. Some kids would miss school to go to camp, as it is no secret that not much learning happens after Memorial Day.
I don’t blame them for being upset. Children in my community returned to school on January 5, following winter vacation. Since then, there has only been one 5-day week of school. In the 7 weeks since school resumed, only one has been normal. I’m not going to debate the wisdom of closing school on cold days in this post. I’ve already done that. But assuming that this is our new normal for winter, why plan so many days off of school for January through March?
Schools were closed January 7, February 9, and 19 for cold and February 1 for snow. In addition, the school calendar already planned for no school January 19 for MLK Day, February 13 for a comp day for teachers for having “spring” (in February?) parent-teacher conferences that week, and February 16 for Presidents’ Day. The calendar also called for taking off Pulaski Day on March 2 (don’t ask if you don’t live in Illinois), but that became a make-up day for one of the days lost to cold-weather closings. In addition, January 14, February 4, and March 11 are half-days set aside for “school improvement” (teacher in-service).
Check out the proposed 2015-16 school calendar for Evanston/Skokie District 65. I use this as a typical example because it is my community. Despite the weather patterns of the past few years and the days lost to school closings, it is substantially the same as this year’s calendar.
It’s time to acknowledge the fact that our winters are very cold and sometimes very snowy. It’s time to try to exceed the minimum requirement for attendance days. It’s time admit that half-days of school attendance don’t really count when it comes to teaching and learning, only to fulfill that very minimal school attendance day rule. It’s time to ensure that most weeks of school contain 5 attendance days. In short, it’s time to put the needs of children first.
To effect positive change on behalf of the children will call for the adults in the room to think differently. It will call for school boards and superintendents to make unpopular choices and for teachers’ unions to make unpopular concessions. But humor me a bit and try thinking outside of the box. Our school calendar makes no sense in a wintry climate.
It’s our children who end up the losers here. They are not learning and their parents are scrambling to make child care arrangements or are forced to leave them home alone. Those that rely on school for breakfast and lunch are hungry. Especially for the most vulnerable kids, children with special needs and children living in poverty, the lack of continuity in a school calendar with so many disruptions is a huge deal. The 2015-16 school year calendar must be redone and not approved this spring in its current state.
Here are 5 common sense suggestions to ensure children’s educational needs are met and to provide the continuity they need. I must preface them by stating that I am a former teacher, many of my friends and relatives are teachers, and I believe in teachers’ unions and belonged to one myself. I was also a preschool administrator for many years and appreciate how difficult it is to decide about closing school. During this time, I created countless school calendars. Finally, I served many years on boards responsible for determining educational policies. So yes, I empathize with the perspectives of all the adults involved.
Keep school open for the federal and state holidays that fall between January and March. This includes going to school on MLK Day, Presidents’ Day, and Pulaski Day. It would be better to honor these people by dedicating the day to learning about them in school.
Move spring parent-teacher conferences to late March or early April, just prior to Spring Break. While we’re at it, consider moving the fall ones to just before Thanksgiving. Maybe the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which is already a non-attendance day, could be taken off as teacher comp time. This was the old timing for conferences and it made sense. October is pretty early for teachers to know enough about their students to have a meaningful conference. In addition, lots of growth (hopefully) takes place between February and the end of school, so I question having the final conference of the school year then. Given our climate, using conferences to schedule a 4-day weekend in the middle of February makes no sense at all. And the excuse for earlier conferences, addressing problems sooner, makes no sense either. Families of children who are having issues by October (or even earlier) should be called in for a separate problem-solving meeting.
Figure out a better way to provide teachers with the required teacher development and training. Having been an early childhood director for many years, I know staff in-service is very important. But losing half days of school seven times a year is not the solution. Children don’t receive regular instruction on those days. The pre-lunch dismissal disrupts the predictability and structure many kids need, and makes parents’ lives difficult as they scramble to make arrangements for their kids. If the goal is to have 20+ hours of teacher training, how about using 3 full days to do this? These days should be prior to the opening of school in the fall and/or after it closes in June.
Just for fun, try scheduling spring break to include Good Friday and Easter? And I think Veterans’ Day in November is fair game for going to school. Why not invite some actual veterans to come in that day to talk to the kids?
Finally, even though I’m Jewish, I’m okay with keeping school open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most kids don’t need the disruption at the start of school in September. Those who observe these holidays should be given excused absences and the opportunity to make up missed work. Same goes for any other religious holidays. Of course, I am talking about public schools here.
I can hear the objections to these suggestions already. Teachers expect these days off and use them for appointments and vacations. School districts are already cash strapped and will have to pay teachers more if days are added. Of course, I have a couple of answers:
Teachers receive an allotment of paid personal days that can be used for this purpose.
School districts could save a bundle by walking away from the high stakes testing nonsense.
In the spirit of the new District 65 motto, every child, every day, whatever it takes, I’m appealing to all of the adults who create and approve our school calendar. A form of year-round schooling would make more sense than having three months off in the summer, but we clearly do not have the resources to make this change. So as a first step, think outside of the box and create a winter calendar that matches the weather. Every child needs is to be in school every day possible in the winter months, and the adults responsible for each child’s welfare need to do whatever it takes to make this happen.