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Transition to a balanced school calendar lengthy

Apr. 21, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Transitioning to a new school calendar is not easy, especially when it impacts nearly every sector of a community.

Just ask the folks with the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, which first discussed moving to a balanced school calendar back in 1998. That initiative would have only affected one community in Davidson County, but parents fought the proposal and won.

Some of those same folks regrouped in late 2005 to try to squash the first effort to change the calendar for all schools in the county. That, too, was defeated by board members, who said they weren't ready to adopt a balanced calendar that would have moved the start of school back two weeks and include a fall break in addition to a winter and spring break.

"We started this in 2005 ... and frankly, the situation wasn't handled too well," said Larry Collier, who retired as director of Student Assignment Services and still serves as co-chairman of the calendar committee. "It could have been presented better to gain public support. I don't think we stated our case well."

In Cabell County, the wisdom of moving to a balanced calendar has been a subject of debate for months now. Cabell County Schools officials have proposed implementing a balanced calendar during the 2014-2015 school year, with a summer break lasting about six weeks and three-week breaks in the fall, summer and spring. It has been met with resistance by many parents, who question whether the move will improve student achievement and pose too many scheduling difficulties for families. A decision by the county's Board of Education may come in May.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools had been starting classes in mid August when the 2005 proposal came along. That would have started school at the end of July and included two-week breaks in the fall and summer. But it did not include intersessions -- optional remediation and enrichment activities for one of those weeks -- during the breaks.

Still, it appeared popular, certainly among teachers and principals, with a 74 percent approval rate in a survey, according to The Tennessean. Nashville's main daily newspaper also reported that 43 percent of parents who responded to the survey were in favor of a balanced calendar, compared with 38 percent who were against and 19 percent who had no preference.

Moving forward

In the following five years before the nine-member school board unanimously voted in 2011 to start a balanced calender this school year -- a lot took place in the central office, in the schools and on the public front, said Joe Bass, communications specialist for Metro Nashville Public Schools. He joined the system four and a half years ago.

A new director of schools, Jesse Register, arrived in 2009 and revitalized the effort to implement a balanced calendar. Bass said Register had put some form of a balanced calendar in place in North Carolina, but only a partial implementation. That was something Register called a mistake and sought to go all out in Nashville, even though the school system that includes all of Davidson County has about 81,000 students in more than 140 schools.

To win over parents, teachers and community members, Bass said the school system implemented an all-out communications blitz to help people understand the "why" -- which Collier said was missing in 2005.

"What we found with the earlier start date and intersessions is that communication is the key," Bass said. "Why we wanted an earlier start date, why we wanted to add days and why we want to offer intersessions."

A big part of the why is connected to Davidson County's 70 percent student poverty level and the one-third who speak a foreign language.

"We have over 100 languages our students bring in, so they have off 12 weeks in the summer where they don't speak any English," Collier said.

The poverty rates are higher, and there are more foreign languages represented in Nashville than in Cabell County. But those who opposed it in Tennessee and those who have voiced opposition here brought up the same concerns. Collier said from what he recalls, the arguments were never about classroom instruction.

"It was inconvenience," he said. "Camps, vacations, anything other than achievement."

The 2011 phone surveys also reflected that, as as they showed more divided results than in 2005-06: 56 percent of families in favor; 59 percent of faculty and 52 percent of staff.

But they were asked about a more dramatic calendar change that also was on the table. The director of schools, The Tennessean reported, had pushed for a calendar that started July 25 and added 10 professional development days for teachers when students would not attend. It would have cost the school system an additional $20 million to pay teachers 5 percent more in salary. In August 2011, by a vote of 5-4, the school board voted against what was described by Nashville media as a "hotly debated" proposal, before adopting the model they have in place this year.

Collier said it was just as much about money as it was about starting the school year earlier.

"Board members just said they couldn't get their arms around starting in July," Collier recalled.

Instead, the board opted for a cost-neutral calendar that would provide for the opportunity to help students but not be overly burdensome to the community.

"We heard very little about it once it passed," Bass said.