ST. ALBANS — A proposal to make minor changes in the school calendar – reduce summer vacation by two and a half weeks and add additional vacation time during the school year – drew more than 200 parents and teachers to Bellows Free Academy Thursday night.
Most of the input received last night was against making changes as proposed by the Champlain Valley Superintendents Association (CVSA). The calendar would be shared by schools in Franklin, Addison, Chittenden and Grand Isle counties. The group, however, has backed off implementing it next year.
Under state law, school districts with technical centers must have 175 common education days and five common days for professional development.
The proposed calendar was created in response to research showing students lose skills over the summer months and the loss is greatest for students in low-income families who are less likely to be able to afford enrichment activities over the summer.
A 1996 analysis of the existing studies on skill losses over the summer found that all students lost a month of math skills over the summer vacation. A subsequent study found that students from low-income families typically lose three months of math skills in the summer.
The proposed calendar shortens the summer break to eight weeks, with students getting out of school on June 19, 10 days later than the current calendar. Students would return to school on August 20, eight days earlier than the current calendar.
Thus, the summer break would be shortened by less than three weeks. Because some schools have negotiated more instruction days than others, some schools already have shorter summer breaks.
Calendar 2.0 expands existing partial week breaks to full weeks, with students getting an entire week off in October and a two-week break at the end of April.
Existing breaks at the end of December and the end of February would be extended to a full two weeks, and the November Thanksgiving break would become a full week.
Individual school districts would have the ability to keep students and teachers in school for all or part of those breaks. For example, a school with a 180-day teacher contract, might decide to shorten the April-May break by one-week.
Time could also be taken from the additional breaks for teachers’ professional development. This would allow schools to avoid hiring substitutes to teach classes while teachers are taking part in professional development activities.
Schools also frequently schedule half-days with students only attending school in the morning so that teachers can attend professional development activities in the afternoon. Calendar 2.0 eliminates half-days.
With more days off during the school day, supporters of Calendar 2.0 argue families will have more days available for vacations and medical appointments during the school year, which will hopefully mean they take students out of school less.
However, attendees at the forum raised multiple objections to the proposed calendar. The additional breaks will pose challenges for students who struggle with transitions, argued parents and special educators.
“I’d rather see kids in school more often with fewer breaks,” said a Fairfield parent who offered only her first name, Candace. She described the additional breaks as “an absolute nightmare.”
A school employee, who works with students having behavioral problems, said those problems escalate in the week before a vacation. Many students also have difficulty returning to the school routine when school resumes, she said.
More vacations and a shorter summer would also be a challenge for non-contract employees, she said. Those employees are paid by the hour and a two-week break would mean two weeks without a paycheck. A shortened summer would make it harder for those employees to find summer employment.
Parents of students needing remedial education questioned the effectiveness of the proposed intersessions. More than one parent suggested that a child who already struggles in school would resent being signaled out to attend more school while siblings and other students had time off.
“What remediation is going to happen in five days?” a parent asked.
Franklin Northwest Superintendent Jack McCarthy said he was concerned about equity, with some schools able to afford more intersession activities and learning opportunities than others. “Kids will be discriminated against on the basis of geography,” said McCarthy.
Franklin Northeast Superintendent Jay Nichols said schools in that supervisory union would pay for remedial education during the intersessions, but parents would likely be asked to pay part of the cost for enrichment activities, if Calendar 2.0 is adopted.
Aware of the need for childcare during breaks, CVSA reached out to community organizations that provide activities for children in July. However, Franklin Central Superintendent Julie Regimbal said only one representative from a Franklin County organization attended.
Arranging alternative activities is likely to be more challenging in rural communities than in Chittenden County or even St. Albans City where the city’s recreation department operates day camps during all extended school breaks, Regimbal acknowledged.
Two teachers from the St. Albans Town Education Center (SATEC) expressed concern about having students in school during warmer weather. Lea Menkens said temperatures in the school reached 80 degrees yesterday. Another teacher, Taylor Goodland, pointed to evidence showing students learn less well in hotter environments and said his classroom has been extremely warm this fall.
Nichols responded that is the responsibility of school districts to ensure schools are habitable. “If a classroom is too hot for students right now… it needs to be fixed,” said Nichols.
One parent stated it is poorer students who are “bringing test scores down.” Their families won’t be able to pay a nominal fee for additional instruction during the intersessions, and parents will be less likely to send their children to school when other students aren’t in attendance, she asserted.
“That’s not a good fix. That’s trying to stretch these kids more than they already are,” she said.
Instead, schools should be focused on engaging students. “It’s really engaging kids in more meaningful educational experiences,” she said.
Another parent, John Casavant, said the difference in school performance is a reflection of parent engagement. “We’ve got to figure out how to engage parents that aren’t engaged now,” he said.
Milton Superintendent John Barone challenged those suggesting poor students are responsible for school’s test scores. “Shame on anyone who does that,” he said. “Demographics are not destiny.”
Barone told the audience that he had been a poor student receiving free school lunches. “I grew up in poverty and I had a teacher who told me I would never amount to anything,” said Barone. “We have to stop thinking that way.”
Calendar 2.0 will not be implemented next year, Nichols and others confirmed. Instead, CVSA will be gathering more information and any significant changes calendar changes will likely come in the future.
Under Vermont law, superintendents set the school calendar.
The proposed calendar can be viewed online (www.schoolcalendar2.blogspot.com).