Adjusting to calendar takes time
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in Davidson County, Tenn., and the neighboring Wilson County school system both are using a balanced school calendar.
Schools there started Aug. 1, with breaks in the fall and spring that included what school officials call intersessions for students to attend voluntarily for remediation and enrichment.
But the similarities end there.
Nashville, with its 140-plus schools and 81,000 students, is in its first year of the calendar. Wilson County, with its 22 schools and nearly 16,000 students, is in its 11th year.
What also differs is the answer to the core question of whether the balanced calendar is helping student achievement. That is one of the issues at the center of the debate in Cabell County as the county's school system considers whether to switch to a balanced calendar, or more of a year-round school pattern. The Cabell County Board of Education is expected to vote in May whether to implement a balanced calendar for the 2014-2015 school year.
Wilson County officials say achievement is up -- graduation rates have increased by 6 percent in the past three years -- but are hesitant to put all the credit on the school calendar.
"It's hard to say what you can attribute to a balanced calendar until you take it away," said Angela Rohen, supervisor of Testing and Accountability for Wilson County Schools. "A lot has changed with curriculum along the way."
In Nashville, it's too early to tell, and opinions are still being formed, even by school personnel. Most say, and point to research as support, that intersessions -- optional remediation and enrichment activities held during extended breaks -- are the key to a balanced calendar's success.
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools believes in that so much that it published a 16-page, magazine-style guide that included every option at every school and community-based location for the March intersession and handed them out to every student.
But there are those who think developing a calendar to allow intersessions isn't the answer and that money could have been spent in other areas, such as professional development.
"I'm not a fan of intersession," said Stacey Elkins, the literacy coach at McGavock Elementary, a school where 85 percent of its 300 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. "There's no research to support it, and I don't know if it's the best use of funds for the district."
Her comments aren't unlike those heard in January and February throughout Cabell County when Assistant Superintendent Gerry Sawrey and Jeff Smith, director of Curriculum and Assessment, explained the balanced calendar option at five public meetings.
Folks here had questions, concerns and comments on just about every aspect of the balanced calendar, from student achievement to the logistics of intersessions to adjustment by different segments of the community.
All that is now being weighed by Cabell County's five school board members, who have to decide if a school calendar built by quarters with optional intersessions and a shorter summer will make a difference for nearly 13,000 students.
Growing pains to becoming the norm
The criticism in Cabell County focused a lot on the summer break being cut almost in half, as proposed in the example calendar shown at all the meetings. That calendar was built on a 9/3 model, which means nine weeks on and three weeks off, with one-week intersessions for remediation and enrichment built into the fall, winter and spring breaks. But the summer break in that model would decrease from about 11 weeks to as few as six.
Both Wilson and Davidson counties were able to maintain comparatively normal summer breaks of about nine and a half weeks by utilizing a 9/2 calendar -- nine weeks on and two weeks off (Davidson County only had a one-week fall break this school year but has two weeks scheduled in the upcoming year).
The research behind balanced calendars is that the longer a summer break is, the more likely a student will suffer summer learning loss and need to catch up when school starts again.
"If you are a kid who has been struggling, (summer learning) loss will be great," said Elandriel Lewis, the director of Sylvan Learning Center in Nashville who has taught in a balanced calendar school system. "I don't think the summer (in Nashville) is short enough to make a difference, but it's a step in the right direction."
But it can be effective if the community embraces it, like it has in Wilson County, people there say.
"It's become kind of a normal course of business now," said Watertown High School Principal Jeff Luttrell, who also serves on the county's calendar committee.
Luttrell said Wilson County has done two or three follow-up surveys just to keep a pulse on what parents and teachers are thinking, and the results have been positive.
"Our parents seem to love it ... and now teachers really like it," Luttrell said. "People love it, and I think there'd be a fight to go back."
Angela Butler, who has two children at Lakeview Elementary, said she moved from Nashville to Wilson County because of the balanced school calendar. She said it's more in tune with how children learn.
"There's no logical sense to have a long break anymore. I would like it if they went to a true year-round calendar," said Butler, a stay-at-home mom. "I definitely never want to go back to a traditional calendar."
If that attitude and acceptance occurs in Cabell County, it won't happen overnight -- just as it hasn't in Nashville, where growing pains are evident in the first year of the transition.
There are still people who grumble that they lost their traditional vacation time in early August. But most have had other concerns similar to those posed by Cabell County residents.
Some parents find childcare difficult to find or afford during the longer breaks, while others were dissatisfied with the intersession topics held in October and, most recently, in March. Others, including teachers, wonder whether student achievement will really improve.
Last year, the test scores at McGavock Elementary in Nashville jumped dramatically while on a traditional calendar, said first-year principal Lance Forman, who was born in Parkersburg, W.Va. That was because teachers got serious about teaching and using student data to figure out who needed help and in what areas, he said.
"(Intersession) might help this school year, but they did it last year without it," Forman said. "It doesn't replace effective teachers."
Still, Forman approves of the path Nashville's public school system is on. He likes that each school can plan its own intersession based on the needs of its students. In many elementary schools, that meant remediation for students identified as below proficiency, as the state test loomed just weeks away.
While each schools' officials can plan their own intersessions, they also have to use school funds to pay for it. And even as a Title I school, Forman said his school had to get creative. Elkins, the literacy coach, and the Title I coordinator received comp time to work during intersession (and will get time off later), while extended contract money from the state funded five other positions.
But transportation was a frustration shared throughout the county, pointing to a question asked in Cabell County a number of times: How do you get the students to intersessions, especially those who need it most?
Forman was able to get a bus for about half the 45 students who registered to attend, as those students lived on two main streets near the school.
"We have families where people are working two and three jobs, but they care," Forman said. "But getting here from home can be a challenge."
He said he made a plea to the district office that to help the students who truly need it, a bus was essential. The district paid for it.
Some limited transportation was available at other schools, said Joe Bass, the communications specialist for the Nashville school system. But by and large, parents had to find ways to get their children there and pick them up. That wasn't always easy, as most school intersessions ended before lunch -- again, because money was not available to provide meals.
That frustrated Misty Emery, who works in downtown Nashville and commutes about 30 minutes from her Bellevue community.
Intersession was limited to students attending their own schools, something Bass said has been brought up and is being discussed for possible changes next year. Emery said if her fifth-grade daughter could have attended intersession at a downtown school, it might have worked. But driving an hour round-trip at lunchtime to pick her up and take her to a relative's house wasn't justifiable.
So Emery brought her daughter to work the first day, sent her to grandma's on Tuesday and Wednesday, then to a friend's house on Thursday and Friday.
When asked why she didn't enroll her daughter in a full-day camp at one of several downtown programs offered as options -- including the Adventure Science Center, Country Music Hall of Fame or Nashville Children's Theatre -- Emery said it came down to cost.
"What bothers me is these are being presented as intersession options, but they are just camps that cost a lot of money," she said about some of the community-based intersession programs.
It should be noted that these parents were already dealing with a one-week spring break in the traditional calendar. During those one-week breaks, many said they would use vacation time, utilize camps or all-day childcare programs or send their kids to a relative's house. Having two weeks in row, they said, created sometimes unmanageable problems.
One mom who shared that sentiment was Anita Wedhwani, even though she supports a balanced calendar system. She said she grew up in Wisconsin and attended a private school that used a balanced calendar and offered what she considered better intersession options than what was offered in Davidson County.
At her 13-year-old son's school, the only intersession option was Latin. For her 10-year-old son, it was three hours of remedial work with an educational computer program. Neither son was interested, she said. That created another dilemma of shuffling children between relatives or friends.
Students also are divided on the new calendar option. Mattea Baskin, a senior at McGavock High School, said there is family frustration with the balanced calendar. Her half-sister's father lives in Pennsylvania, and she typically spends her summers with him. Neither were happy to find out their summers are now two weeks shorter.
But, said Larry Collier, who retired as director of Student Assignment Services and still serves as co-chairman of the calendar committee, there will always be segments of the population who will be negatively affected in some way. He said people must learn to make sacrifices when it comes to a child's education.
"Everybody wants public schools to be improved, but not at the expense of convenience," Collier said.
He said the difference for the Nashville district, and what he advises other school systems looking at adopting a similar calendar, is to focus on the students when making the decision.
"Just focus on student achievement and what (a balanced calendar) could do," he said.
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