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Still Rethinking the School Calendar

Published in ChicagoNow, March 6, 2015

While watching Morning Joe yesterday, I almost fell off of my exercise bike when they happily announced that Mayor De Blasio of New York City will be closing schools two days for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr next year. Joe Scarborough, who is hardly a proponent of political correctness, thought this was a great idea. He and Willie Geist went on about how great it was to be off for Jewish holidays as well. Obviously, having no school on Christian holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday has been a given for a long time.

At the end of this kumbaya moment, Mika Brzezinski asked what about kids losing two more days of school. The exact timing of the Muslim holy days changes year to year because they are based on a lunar calendar. (In the coming school year, Eid al-Adha falls on September 24, and in 2016, Eid al-Fitr falls during the summer.) Then everyone chuckled about kids having to be in school until July.

Well, I’m not laughing. Our school calendars are ridiculous, and taking more days off to make a political statement demonstrates how the needs of children always seem to come last in this equation. What everyone misses here is that inconsistent calendars, with many weeks less than five days long, are unfair to children who need to learn and parents who need to work. I know there are parents out there who cherish these days off, but inconsistent school calendars actually hurt our most vulnerable children and are a major headache for the 70% of mothers who also have jobs outside the home.

Yes, I believe we should respect Muslim holidays as much as Jewish or Christian ones. Children observing their religious holidays should be excused from school. They should also be encouraged to share their customs and traditions with one another so they can learn to understand and appreciate the diversity of our country. But I also believe public schools should be open on these days.

Aside from politicians who want to curry favor with their constituents, teachers and administrators have also been happy to use the school calendar to create long weekends, days off to compensate for conducting parent-teacher conferences, and teacher training days. I think long weekends are great and I totally believe in having conferences to inform parents about their children’s progress and in continuing education for teachers. But the needs of children and families are lost in this equation.

In Illinois, the minimum requirement is 176 school attendance days. In my community, there are seven half-days set aside for teacher development. The state counts those as attendance days, but I see them as 3.5 more non-attendance days, so the actual number required by Illinois for my grandkids’ schools is 172.5.

Let’s try a little math. Assume kids go to school 5 days per week, the last week of August through first week of June. That’s 40 weeks. Subtract two weeks for winter and spring vacations, and three days for a Thanksgiving break (I’m not a total Grinch). We end up with 187 potential attendance days. But using the calendar in my community as an example, the children are actually in school much less than that.

Where did the 14.5 days go?

  • Religious Holidays beyond Christmas and Easter = 3 – Rosh Hashanah (9/14), Yom Kippur (9/23), and Good Friday (3/25)

  • Compensation Days off for parent-teacher conference weeks – 2 (10/23 and 2/12)

  • Federal and State holidays – 6

  • School improvement Days (teacher in-service) – 3.5 (seven Wednesday afternoons)

My math may be a bit off because it’s so hard to read the fine print on the calendar, but looking at it another way, out of 38 attendance weeks in the school year, only half (19) are 5-day weeks. And this does not factor in how the school calendar does not anticipate the weather-related school closings, which fall in January through March when there are only five full weeks of school to begin with.

A comment on our community Facebook page makes an important link between the outrage many parents feel over instructional time lost to preparing for and taking the PARCC exam and frustration over the proposed school calendar:

“The word that comes to mind when I think of my daughter’s learning experience… is disrupted. For me, this test [PARCC] is yet another example of misplaced funds and time, added on to the current school calendar which provides little in the way of continuity in classroom time and makes it so difficult for any good teacher to craft and immerse the class in learning project for the joy of learning. We seem to have fewer and fewer complete weeks of school, always being interrupted by days off/partial days. It’s a punitive schedule for parents and certainly is not what I want for my daughter.”

I think there are solutions, but they will require some thinking outside the box as well as a willingness on the part of school boards, administrators, and teachers to be open to change. Parents who have put so much energy into opposing PARCC on the basis of insufficient time for actual teaching should also look at the issue of the school calendar.


by Laurie Levy
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