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Incomplete school weeks spark complaints

A Denver Public Schools task force recently examined whether changing the start of the academic year would lessen the problem of overly warm schools – and in the process sparked plenty of heated rhetoric on a related topic.

Many parents and DPS community members vented in a survey that the district’s calendar features far too many weeks in which children are not in school for full days Monday through Friday.

Scores of people among the 1,975 who made comments on the survey conducted by the task force last November targeted that issue.

A sampling of those responses, which did not include identities of those who left them:

  • “The ridiculous amount of DPS days off is annoying and could be reduced to allow for a later start date and not have to take school into June.”
  • “There are far too many days off during the year. That’s also part of the solution.”
  • “Is it possible to have less days off in the year so that the end date of the school year could be moved up? This year we had days off at the end of October and then two weeks later two days off and then three days off for Thanksgiving break. All these days off seem unnecessary.”

April is the only month on the DPS calendar this year with no interrupted week. It will be the only month without one next year as well.

DPS is by no means alone in having frequent interrupted weeks throughout the school year. Jeffco Public Schools has about a many as Denver, as do other urban districts around the country.

In Denver, though, thanks to the recent survey, people are paying attention to the issue. There were enough comments along these lines that the start-date task force suggested in its findings, “Irrespective of when school starts, reduce the number of non-student contact days during the school year.”

Claudia Alvarado, who has one son in the second grade at Cole Arts & Science Academy and a second student due to start school in the fall, works answering telephones in customer service.

“Right now I make $280 per week and I have to pay $100 a week for a babysitter just for one child,” she said. “When there’s no school, I have to pay an extra $15 for the second child.

“You might say it’s not much. But how much is going to be left of my check? I understand that our teachers need to be more prepared and everything, but there are a lot of families that this is pretty hard for.”

A recent history of tweaking the calendar

The DPS board last month voted to delay the start of the 2012-13 school year, moving the start date from Aug.16 to Aug. 27 and adjusted the end date by bumping it from May 28 to June 4.

But left unaddressed by the board is the subject of interrupted school weeks – whether the cause is federal holidays, seasonal vacation, student assessment or professional development days.

Board member Jeannie Kaplan is upset that the district has not responded to the concerns.

“We make these one-off decisions that complicate people’s lives and I think this is a perfect example of one,” she said.

Board president Mary Seawell describes calendar construction as a balancing act between providing teachers adequate planning time and avoiding difficulties for families.

“I don’t think this (revised ’12-13) calendar is at all perfect,” she said. “It’s a first step to addressing multiples issues, primarily the heat at the start of the school year. It doesn’t mean that we won’t address it again in the future.”

DPS has a recent history of tweaking its schedule to address issues such as fitting in teacher professional time in different ways – with mixed success.

In the 2008-09 school year, the district instituted a practice of scattering five late-morning days into the calendar, having students report three hours later on those days to give teachers 15 hours’ training time.

The innovation was unpopular. One DPS parent submitted a petition signed by more than 400 parents opposed to the practice and attendance at some high schools plummeted on those days.

The district axed that experiment and, the next year, went instead with five early-release days spread throughout the year. On those days, students got out of school three hours early.

This, too, met with complaints and was negotiated out of the collective bargaining agreement reached with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association in 2010.

DCTA and district leaders are currently negotiating a new contract and the scheduling of assessment days for students and training days for teachers is part of those discussions.

“A potential solution to that would be for the district to pay for additional days,” said DCTA president Henry Roman. But, he added, “Given the current budget constraints, that’s quite challenging.”

Other districts here, elsewhere face similar challenges

Denver is hardly alone in struggling to find a schedule that works for everyone. For evidence, look no further than next door to Jeffco Public Schools, the largest district in the state.

There, K-8 students are released early six Wednesdays through the year, affording teachers assessment time. In addition, due to budget cuts, students lost two school days this year. Jeffco also has two days off for students to allow for teacher training plus two teacher comp days to compensate for evening conferences with parents.

The only month of the current Jeffco calendar that does not have an interrupted week is March -– but in March, students will be out of school the entire final week, for spring break.

“It’s a very tricky balancing act, to try to meet the expectations of parents who want their children in school and educators also want them in school,” said Jeffco schools spokeswoman Lynn Setzer.

“But then, balancing that with the need of educators to have some time without students in the building, to meet and talk about things that will make sense for student achievement.”

At many urban districts around the country, it’s a similar story.

Public schools in Portland, Ore., for example are in their third year of a calendar that incorporates late-starts, or delaying school by two hours, once a month. It’s typically the third Wednesday of the month.

“We’ve eliminated two or three professional development days, where the students have the day off. We now have the same number of professional development hours and just spread it out over more days,” said school district spokesman Matt Shelby.

“There were parents who said, ‘I’d rather do that once a month than have to find a full-day day care.’ ”

Shelby conceded that some Portland parents initially said “What am I supposed to do with my child that one day a month until 10 o’clock?”

“There’s definitely an adjustment period that takes place,” he said. “But we don’t hear about it now.”

Scant data on impact of incomplete weeks

DPS is currently partnered with the National Center on Time & Learning in Massachusetts to consult on its scheduling issues – particularly as it relates to a longer school day.

As to whether unbroken school weeks affect student achievement, NCTL vice president Ben Lummis said, “I don’t think that’s something we’ve studied in any depth.

“We’ve seen it done very well in some schools, and poorly in others. It’s how you execute it that really matters.”

Charles Ballinger, the executive director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round Education, also said he was unaware of empirical data or extensive studies on the impact of incomplete weeks on learning.

“I would think the bigger issue lies with the parents, that they want more of the continuous scheduling for their own purposes in this day and age when both parents are at work outside the home,” he said.

“But I would say to parents, the long summer vacations have a far more deadly effect on learning than a four-day week or occasionally shortened day.”

Susana Cordova, the chief academic officer for DPS – and a parent of two DPS students – is well aware of the calendar complaints.

When the current calendar was drafted, she said, “it was not intended to have instruction interrupted in the way that it played out. I don’t think the calendar committee … really played out all of the implications.”

Cordova said putting together full weeks is “definitely” a goal.

“We have really tried to be sensitive” in structuring the 2012-13 calendar, she said. “I am sure there are going to be things that we missed, and we’ll correct, to make improvements to the next iterations of calendars.”

Alvarado, the Cole parent, said she hopes so.

“I hope that DPS does think a little bit more about the working families,” she said. “I … understand that our teachers want to be more prepared for our children. But it’s hard for us parents to work around that.”

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