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Pros, cons of new calendar weighed

School calendar
Apr. 21, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Researchers who support a balanced school calendar say the key to its success is offering quality intersessions during breaks that provide help for students who have fallen behind and enrichment activities for those who want it.

That is something officials with the Metropolitan Nashville Public School system have worked hard to do in that system's first year of using a balanced calendar.

But offerings, attendance and communication for the first intersession during fall break were lacking -- a sentiment shared by parents and school officials.

"It's more positive this time (in March) than the fall," said Robbin Wall, the executive principal at McGavock High School. "But you learn from experience."

Officials at Cabell County Schools are considering going through that experience starting in the 2014-2015 school year. They have proposed switching to a balanced calendar with a shorter summer break and longer fall and spring breaks that would include the so-called intersessions, or remedial classes and enrichment activities during part of those breaks. A decision may come in May.

In developing these intersessions, key issues are whether they provide activities useful and relevant to students, whether parents have sufficient time to plan their kids' participation and if costs can get in the way of children taking part.

In Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, communications specialist Joe Bass said officials there received a lot of feedback after the fall intersession. While he described it as "overwhelmingly good," he said people wanted more timely communication.

So Bass and others in his department worked with school and community officials to plan intersessions much further in advance, even producing a 16-page magazine for the March intersession that was sent home with each of the 81,000 students in Davidson County.

In addition to about two dozen options made available by outside organizations, each of the 140-plus schools had to plan intersession activities (though students were limited to only what was offered at their school).

Many offered remedial options in subjects such as reading and math, with the state test looming in mid April, hoping to get students ready, while also providing tutoring and other opportunities for students to catch up.

"The first thing that's positive ... is the opportunity to catch kids up who (are) behind," Wall said. "We were identifying the kids, and our secretaries and counselors were making calls."

The high schools also offered Advanced Placement programs to help students prep for the national tests that are scheduled in May. But schools also worked hard to create quality enrichment opportunities by utilizing business and community partnerships.

For instance, at Margaret Allen Middle School, seventh- and eighth-graders volunteered at the Rescue Mission and 2nd Harvest Food Bank. They kept journals and then wrote newspaper editorials on the importance of volunteerism.

At Bellevue Middle School, students were engaged in mock trials or participated in activities provided by the school's garden club.

Other examples included outdoors, financial literacy, healthy lifestyles, music production, educational field trips, production of a play, crime-solving skills, art, career and college readiness, model rocketry, college tours and movie making.

Several education officials, including the director of the Sylvan Learning Center in Nashville, said intersessions provide time to do activities that can't fit into a normal school day. Elandriel Lewis, who also has taught in a balanced calendar school system, said sometimes getting through the curriculum means those complementary learning opportunities are limited to after school or in the summer.

"We're doing something that couldn't happen in a school day," Wall added.

At Amqui Elementary, where about 94 percent of the 635 students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches, officials utilized Title I dollars to organize five field trips throughout Nashville.

"We got a little pushback because they wanted more focus on test prep," Principal Jim Morris said, noting that most of his students likely don't get to see such places as the Tennessee State Museum and Country Music Hall of Fame. "Testing is still a top priority, but we chose enrichment."

Between 50 and 60 children attended each day, then came back to school to create posters and write in their daily log books about the experiences, which also included a tour of Fisk University.

Morris said it was challenging to organize the trip but saw how rewarding it was for the students, mentioning two brothers with behavior problems who chaperones said were "absolutely terrific on the trip."

Bass said the district and its schools only had enough money to offer 14,000 seats for the county's 81,000 students for the school-based intersessions. He said about 12,000 registered to attend -- a rate of about 18 percent.

Melinda Brown, a business teacher at McGavock High School, said the success of intersessions will fall on students and how much they promote it to one another.

"I think it will be word of mouth, the more the kids see it," she said.

Brown oversaw a three-day program led by John Murdock from The Entrepreneur Center, a Nashville company that helps people in the early stages of starting a business. A group of eight students learned fundamentals and pitched a business plan at the end of the experience.

"I'm here for a reason," said sophomore Chase Day, whose sister was up the street at her middle school's intersession. "To get extra learning."

One of the school's business partners, the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, contributed to two programs held at the school: a full-day, interactive presentation on the influence of media in corporate America by the Gaylord Leadership Institute; and a culinary clinic hosted by resort chefs.

"Schools are really relying on strong partnerships (for intersession) to be successful," Bass said.

Outside the school

That 12,000-student figure didn't include those who attended a community-based intersession, which were provided by places like the Adventure Science Center, Metro Park System, Nashville Public Library and Watkins College of Art & Design.

There were at least two dozen options throughout the county. Most of them charged fees, though some offered scholarships to those who qualified and a few were free.

One of the free offerings was a day-long conference for high school students presented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

Students attended the Stand Up/ Speak Up Students' Rights Conference, where a number of interactive sessions were offered. Among the topics were free speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, interactions with law enforcement, LGBT equality and tools for change.

The goal of the conference, organizers said, was to help students understand their constitutional rights and responsibilities, and discuss civic engagement opportunities.

Hands On Nashville expanded its VolunTEEN program to include both intersession and spring break weeks.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum partnered with other nonprofit organizations to offer high school students a week-long job shadowing program.

Nathalie Lavine, the school programs manager at the Country Music Hall of Fame, said 21 students from six high schools took part. During the first four days, they rotated between sites, which also included the Center for Nonprofit Management, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the Nashville Symphony. On the final day, they presented a report of their experience.

"It was an intense job shadowing program for high school students, getting to know careers in nonprofit," Lavine said. "We couldn't have done that in the summer or during the school year."

The Hall of Fame also hosted 60 students who came on a field trip with Amqui Elementary.

Students were admitted free with the purchase of a ticket by a parent and given an activity pack that contained a scavenger hunt through the museum, coloring pages, a family guide and postcard.

There were other community-based options that came with a price tag and were described by some parents as glorified camps for those who could afford it.

Camp or not, the goal was still to make it educational. That was easy at Adventure Science Center, which filled all 15 available spots for its week-long intersession camp.

"It's education at all the camps. It's what we do," said Jeff Krinks, the director of Marketing and Communications. "Science is the name of the game."

Though the camp was $45 per day, Krinks noted that students in the public school system can visit the science center for free any day of the week.

Each day of the kindergarten through sixth-grade camp was a different theme, said coordinator Libby Staley. That included chemistry, engineering and robotics.

Jennifer Ussery's two children attended during intersession and were scheduled to return for the spring break program. As a certified public accountant, late March can get pretty busy, and she needed a full-day camp.

"We brought them here last year, and they really enjoyed it," Ussery said. "I wanted them to have a break from school, and this is educational, but a different kind of educational."

The science center's outreach program also took part in intersession, visiting several schools in both the fall and spring, said Larry Dunlap-Berg, an educator with the program.

Typically, the mobile program does assemblies at schools, but Dunlap-Berg said the intersessions allow them to work more closely with students.

"You certainly have the opportunity to get to know the students," he said. "You can adapt to their learning styles. With this, we were able to build from one day to the next."

Some organizations were still evaluating how to best get involved in the intersession. Jim Bartoo, the director of Marketing and Public Relations at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, said officials discussed how to capitalize on a week where students were encouraged to participate in some mode of learning.

While the zoo offers a summer camp, Bartoo said there were too many hoops to jump through to organize a short-term camp in the middle of the school year.

"For us, it's a matter of training and staffing," he said, citing a lack of college students available to work.

Coming Tuesday: After 11 years, one county is settled into balanced calendar, sees academic gains.

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