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DPS survey results: Start school later

On a night the temperature outside was sinking into the teens, the hot topic in the Denver Public Schools boardroom was heat – and whether stifling late summer days are sufficient reason to change the entire school calendar.

A task force charged with spearheading this discussion came to a Thursday night session armed with survey results showing that about two-thirds of 6,899 people responding to a question about proposed start dates in an online district questionnaire believe the start date should be changed.

The start-date committee will be presenting its findings to the Denver school board on Monday, but will not be advocating one specific calendar schedule over another.

“There’s not a recommendation from the task force, there is not a recommendation from staff. This is to inform the board so that they can make an informed decision about what they want to do next,” said Josh Drake, DPS deputy chief of staff.

“It’s fundamentally, here’s the results of a survey, we gathered a lot of input, here’s currently what our parents and other stakeholders are thinking, and then for the board to decide if they want to take action from there.”

Respondents to the survey, conducted Nov. 8 through Nov. 25 on the DPS website, were split roughly into thirds on three proposed calendars they were asked to consider:

  • The highest percentage, 37.6 percent, said they’d prefer to see DPS open its doors the first week of September, and end in the second week of June.
  • Just over one third – 33.8 percent – prefer a year starting the third week in August and ending the last week in May, as it does currently.
  • Finally, another 28.5 percent believe school should start in the last week of August and end the first week in June.

The respondents most in favor of a new start date were parents, with nearly 70 percent wanting a change. The single biggest group of parents favored a later start, with the school year running from the first week of September to the second week of June.

More than half of DPS employees – or 58.3 percent – answering the survey also supported a change. But given the three options, the single biggest group chose the current schedule and the remaining 57.8 percent split between the two later start dates.

While those were the overall numbers, there was significant disparity in responses from English and Spanish speakers. For example, of the 134 Spanish speakers who answered, nearly 54 percent said the calendar should not be changed.

Of the 7,144 survey respondents, 59 percent were parents or guardians, 35 percent were DPS employees, 4 percent were community members and only 1.6 percent were students. Not every survey participant answered every question.

Start date revisited because of record August heat

It might be a distant memory now to people negotiating snow banks and icy ruts but hot weather and overheated schoolrooms were a dominant topic of conversation in DPS circles barely three months ago.

Hundreds of DPS community members signed a petition in the first weeks of the school year, urging the district to move the starting date after Labor Day. Classes began this year for some schools Aug. 10 and for others Aug. 18. The last day of classes is May 25.

As school began, Denver suffered through its hottest August on record in 139 years, with 22 days of 90 degrees or higher. Roughly half DPS schools lack air conditioning or evaporative cooling systems and that produced numerous uncomfortable days for teachers and students as temperatures in some schools exceeded 100 degrees. At least two students were treated for heat-related illnesses, according to the district’s communications office.

In September, school board member Andrea Merida proposed a resolution to study appropriate calendar year start dates, calling for a decision in December for a new start date effective in 2012 “that begins after Labor Day, and ends on a date to coincide with state-mandated seat time requirements and that presents accommodations for sporting season start dates and other events that may be affected by a later start date.”

That resolution was not voted on, but it was little more than a month later than the Start Date Task Force was launched.

Although the task force does not make specific recommendations, a draft version of its report does conclude with several “open-ended responses” for the school board’s review:

  • Whenever school starts, reduce the number of non-student contact days during the school year.
  • If the start date is deferred, reduce vacations and breaks to finish the year by the end of May.
  • Even if the start date is delayed, address hot buildings because of health and learning concerns. Install AC where financially feasible; continue to pursue alternative cooling strategies; explore the use of Heat Days; adjust hours of the school day if necessary.

Estimated cost for air-conditioning across DPS: $400 million

DPS officials have estimated it would cost $400 million to install air conditioning in schools lacking the systems.

One task force member, Amy Grant, a district secretary and past president of the Denver Association of Educational Office Professionals, said it’s hard to draw conclusions from the survey, given that it shows people’s preferences split evenly between three different calendars.

“I don’t think this addresses the problem, which is heat in buildings. The district has no policy on heat-related issues or health-related issues having to do with heat.”
— Amy Grant, DPS secretary“I don’t think this addresses the problem, which is heat in buildings,” Grant said. “The district has no policy on heat-related issues or health-related issues having to do with heat.

“I don’t see that air conditioning is an option for every building. Maybe adjusting the school day is a better option.”

Drake said DPS is continuing to examine the question of how to reduce heat mitigation in its buildings – regardless of what calendar change, if any, is made.

A calendar change, Drake said “will mitigate some of the heat issues, but it won’t solve all of the heat issues. You’re still going to have a hot day in school, whether you start on Sept. 1 or Aug. 15.”

One task member asked Thursday night whether a calendar change would have to wait until 2013. Drake said if a change is made by the DPS board, it could take effect next year.

“It’d be tight, but I still think it’s doable,” Drake said.

Grant said during Thursday’s session that she believes a school year calendar change is a far more complex proposition than many people realize.

“There is so much involved in moving this, when you consider you’ve got contracts, you’ve got state laws … you’ve got the athletic issues, you’ve got parks and rec that bases its programs on the DPS school calendar,” she said. “It’s the whole city. It’s not a simple fix.”

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