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Editorial: Less drastic calendar shift could still help students

Apr. 27, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

Plenty of discussion has taken place in the past 15 months about the state of public education in West Virginia, sparked by an audit of the education system. Most has centered on improving student achievement, long lagging that in most other states.

So when an initiative comes along that could aid learning, it's worth a serious look. That's the case with Cabell County Schools' proposal to move from a traditional school calendar to what officials call a "balanced calendar," one that shortens the summer break and inserts longer fall and spring breaks into the school year.

In a series of public forums, the idea garnered some support, but also a sizable amount of criticism. Opponents spoke of potential logistical complications involving vacations, other summer endeavors, extracurricular activities, child care and transportation. They also contend there is no clear-cut evidence that a balanced calendar will improve student performance.

All are valid points for discussion.

Part of the rationale for a balanced calendar is to reduce the "summer learning loss" associated with being out of the classroom for a long period of time. But a balanced calendar may carry an even bigger benefit: a chance for struggling students to get some extra academic help during the school year.

That opportunity would come from what school officials call "intersession" activities. As balanced calendars are practiced in many places, those fall and spring breaks typically include one week of voluntary remedial classes and possibly enrichment activities. That's part of the Cabell County proposal.

As Bill Rosenberger of The Herald-Dispatch reported in a three-part series last week, those intersessions are considered key to the success of balanced calendars, according to officials he spoke with in the Nashville, Tenn., area. He visited a large school system now finishing up its first year using a balanced calendar and another similar in size to Cabell County, where a balanced calendar has been in place for 11 years. Some of the concerns voiced in Cabell County are evident in the system where the calendar is new. In the other, the balanced approach is considered old hat now, and is viewed by most stakeholders as successful. In that latter system, there are signs of significant improvement in student achievement, but officials are hesitant to credit the balanced calendar alone for the gains.

Both places put plenty of emphasis on the benefit of the intersessions.

Also evident was that those systems' calendar changes were not nearly as dramatic as the example presented in Cabell County. The Cabell plan 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.

The counties in Tennessee maintained comparatively normal summer breaks of about nine and a half weeks by utilizing a 9/2 calendar -- nine weeks on and two weeks off with intersessions conducted during one of those weeks. That seems a more reasonable approach, one that will cause less upheaval and perhaps reduce any backlash. And it would preserve what seems to be the most important aspect of a balanced calendar: Kids have a chance to catch up with school subjects during those intersession weeks. Under the traditional calendar, there is no such breathing room. It also is important that enrichment activities be planned so that all students have an opportunity to benefit, not just those who are having troubles.

A Cabell County Schools committee is now preparing a proposal that will be brought to the Board of Education in coming months. A balanced calendar that includes short breaks with intersessions throughout the school year holds good potential for helping students, but that can be accomplished with a more moderate departure from the traditional schedule.

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