14 August 2005

Timing is Everything

When I moved to Washington, I was appalled to find out that I'd be working until the third week in June. June? There's not supposed to be school in June. Even after 9 years here, I'm still not used to the idea of being in the classroom when the calendar tells me it's June.

I'm not sure that some of the alternatives out there are any better. Did you know that many schools in Georgia, for example, began their school year on July 22nd? A recent article was published in the New York Times about the parental backlash against increasingly early start dates. Alas, the article is no longer available for viewing (without paying for it), but those crafty EdWonks have it on their site if you'd like to read it.

The way some school districts see it, earlier start dates mean more class time before the standardized tests. This means you have more opportunities to support student learning. As an AP teacher, I have often bemoaned the fact that some schools have as much of a 6-week lead time on me and yet all of our kids take the same test on the same day.

One thing I have wondered about in terms of our rather late start time here in the west if it is due to the way schools are funded. Counts are taken on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th days of school in order to determine how much money (per pupil) we are allowed by the state. So, it makes sense to wait until you know as many families as possible are back from summer holiday. If you're a state in the south where your per pupil allowance is based on how many kids you have on the 20th day of school, then you can start a few weeks before Labour Day and still have everyone there by the time you do the count for funding. (I remember in NM, the teachers would hold their breaths until the 21st day---because that's when suspensions and expulsions would start being handed out to kids.)

I don't think I'd like starting back in July, but I did like beginning the year in August. One of the biggest advantages was ending the first semester at the time Winter Break began. Coming back in January and still facing a whole month of the "fall" semester is a real drag...but I don't see any changes in the foreseeable future.

Some districts in my state have applied for waivers which allow them to have fewer than 180 contact days with students. The idea is that they can use the "extra" time for teacher collaboration on lesson planning. My district has a variation on this. No waiver---but we massage the schedule a bit to give teachers an extended "common planning time" on Thursday afternoons.

Other districts in the country are taking things a bit farther: four-day weeks. Students attend Monday - Thursday and on Friday, teachers meet, plan, etc. These districts are saving a significant amount of money because they have one day each week when they don't use their buses or cafeterias. Also, absenteeism (for both students and teachers) has decreased greatly. This also saves the district money as fewer subs for teachers are required. The bonus is that increased time for careful lesson planning is showing gains in student achievement.

Why is "180" such a magic number? Should students who can meet the standard be allowed to attend fewer days? As districts look at budgetary concerns, should this issue be of higher consideration?

I am interested to see where this issue will go in the next few years. Because of limited school funding and ever-increasing expectations of schools, I am thinking that different configurations of the school year are going to be more appealing to both districts and states. And hey, if it means no more teaching in June, I'm all for it.

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