Embracing a balanced calendar
NASVHILLE, Tenn. -- "People love it and I think there'd be a fight to change it back."
That is how Watertown High School Principal Jeff Luttrell assessed the current views about use of a balanced school calendar in Wilson County, Tenn., where it was implemented 11 years ago.
Wilson County neighbors Davidson County, where the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools system is in the first year of its balanced calendar. Understandably, Nashville is going through some growing pains.
But in Wilson County, which has about 15,000 students in 22 schools, folks have accepted it and even embraced it to the point where the traditional calendar seems like ages ago.
"From my standpoint, it's kind of a normal course of business now," Luttrell said.
That doesn't mean the change wasn't hard. But those who spoke about it, from within the school system and community, just can't remember now what all the fuss was about.
"I remember little conversations about changing schedules," said Sue Vanatta, the president and chief executive officer for the Lebanon Wilson County Chamber of Commerce. "There are always a few people who resist change."
In Cabell County, many people have voiced their opposition to a plan put forth by the public school system to switch to a school calendar that includes a summer break lasting about six weeks and three-week breaks in the fall, summer and spring. As planned, one of the weeks in each of the breaks would offer what officials call intersessions, or activities aimed at remedial work for students or enrichment. A decision whether to start such a calendar in the 2014-2015 school year may come in May.
In Tennessee's Wilson County, part of the reason people have bought in was because the balanced calendar there utilizes a 9/2 model that still allows about nine weeks for a summer break, said Angela Rohen, supervisor of Testing and Accountability.
The 9/2 model means nine weeks of school, then two-week breaks in the fall, winter and spring. During those breaks in the fall and spring, the schools offer students the option of attending intersession during one of the weeks. Those intersessions focus specifically on remediation, helping students catch up in school subjects that they are struggling with.
"That was a strong selling feature of the balanced calendar," Rohen said. "If our intersession begins to fall apart, I'm pretty confident we'd lose the 9/2 calendar."
Rohen said Wilson County has chosen to focus on remediation efforts during the intersessions, giving students an opportunity to make up assignments or recover grades. Reading and math, she said, are always the focus for elementary and middle, while high schools have more flexibility to help students.
However, because of funding, they don't ask the schools to provide enrichment activities, something Rohan said has its downside. But, she added that community groups have stepped in to a degree by offering some activities. That includes academic camps from the higher education community and a student police academy at the local police department.
While Rohen said student achievement has been increasing -- the county's graduation rate has risen from 89.6 percent in 2010 to 95.5 percent in 2012 -- she is hesitant to say it's because of the balanced calendar and intersessions.
"It's hard to say what you can attribute to the balanced calendar until you take it away," she said. "A lot has changed with curriculum a long the way."
Luttrell said he remembers some educators being concerned about students having too many breaks because of the fear that it would lead to the kind of learning loss often associated with the long summer breaks of the traditional school data. But he said data show there has been continued growth.
"I don't think it's all the calendar," he said. "But the intersession piece, it helps academically. Due to the remediation we've done, our graduation rate was 94 percent last year. Remediation is a direct reflection of that number."
Shauna Blue, a teacher and mother, said the calendar and intersessions have been valuable to Wilson County. But she said it doesn't replace quality teaching.
Blue spent several years teaching in Wilson County before her husband, who is in the military, was transferred to the Tampa area in Florida.
She said Hillborough County in Florida proved to be one of the top school systems in the country, by and large because of its emphasis on professional development.
In her two years there before moving back to Tennessee, Blue said she received about 100 hours of professional development -- teachers in Cabell County are only required to receive 18 each year. Some of the professional development, Blue said, was provided by the school system, while she paid for some of her own on the weekends and during the summer.
"We need to model some very successful schools out there, and we're trying to re-invent the wheel because it's test, test, test," Blue said.
Still, those in the school system are pretty satisfied with what they're seeing. Angela Butler, who is on the PTO at Lakeview Elementary, said her family moved to Wilson County from Nashville because of the balanced calendar.
"It's proven that summers are too long," said Butler, a mother of two elementary students. "There's no logical reason to have a long break anymore. I would like it if they went to a true year-round calendar."
While Rohan believes the balanced calendar has helped, she said those other changes made along the way with the curriculum and use of student data to tailor instruction could be just as valuable with a traditional calendar.
"Can we maintain what we're doing if we take the balanced calendar away? I think we probably could," Rohan said. "But ... both kids and teachers like it. So there are some non-measurable things."
It doesn't hurt Wilson County Schools that the Lebanon Special School District, a city school district within Wilson County that has three elementary and two middle schools, also works on the same schedule.
That wasn't the case in nearby Rutherford County, which also includes Murfreesboro City Schools. The Murfreesboro system tried a balanced calendar several years ago, but went back to a traditional calendar in part because Rutherford County was on a traditional calendar. The secretary to the director of schools also indicated that they also didn't meet academic goals under the balanced calendar.
The school system in Rutherford County also tried the balanced calendar option, but not a full implementation.
"We did a pilot project in a couple schools about 12 years ago to see what parents thought of it," said James Evans, the community relations coordinator for the school system. "Parents didn't like it."
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