Our local school system is presently considering a new calendar for the 2009-2010 school year. The school system is the largest employer in our county and that calendar can affect a lot of things for good or ill. Many other activities and events within the community revolve around the school activities. Every parent and teacher has a stake in this decision and it may turn out to be a point of major contention. These decisions will also have a significant impact on students with disabilities and their families. Here’s a run down of our choices and the issues around them including pros and cons (at least as I see it).
Calendar #1 – The current balanced calendar: This is called a balanced calendar because the summer break is much shorter that what other school systems have. It is not “year-round” school by any stretch, but it does balance the year out a bit better. We start in late July (and are among the earliest schools to start in the country) and end around memorial day. In addition to the normal holiday and spring breaks, we also get a week-long break in October and another week-long break in February. We also get a full week for Thanksgiving and the semester ends at the Christmas break that lasts two weeks. The advantage of this system is having those breaks throughout the year. The fall break is especially nice as most schools do not have this week off. That means one can get great travel deals and travel in general is less of a hassle. The shorter summer also means that regression is less of an issue. It is still an issue, but it is less than if we were off for an extra month. For me, this is my choice because after a few weeks I feel the itch to get back to teaching. I like my breaks more often and shorter. That is my own personal bias.
For students with disabilities, a shorter break is actually better. Extended school year is still offered, but it is less of an issue with a 6 week summer. There are more frequent disruptions, though, throughout the year. This is a mixed bag depending on your point of view. For my son, he really enjoys his breaks but if they are too long we can get more behavior problems. He also get a certain amount of fatigue after being in school several weeks straight without a break which also results in behavior problems. In general, the shorter, more frequent breaks work for us. When we first did this calendar, a lot of parents complained about finding childcare. However, they did manage to make the adjustment and I think most employees ans students like this calendar. The state does not, though. The state of Georgia feels rushed with our early start to score tests. Students who did not pass their standardized tests (CRCT) can take a make-up test during the summer, but there is a real rush to score them in time for the start of the new year. Many of these students will be relying on those scores to advance to middle or high school. Many businesses also do not like the short summer as they believe it shortens the tourist season and decreases spending and hurts the economy. That argument, to me, is totally weak as the spending/traveling economy is balanced out over the year instead of all crammed in the summer. Shorter breaks might even help the Georgia economy as families may choose to travel within Georgia since longer breaks afford more time to travel out of state than shorter ones.
Option # 2 – Mid-August Start Date: This calendar starts a week after the calendar above and eliminates the October and February breaks. It also provides a few more 3-day weekends. The advantage to this calendar is that the summer is a week longer and there is less disruption caused by week-long breaks. Scattering more 3-day weekends helps make up for the loss of the longer breaks. For students with disabilities, this might not be a bad calendar as it is does minimize disruptions to the routine while providing frequent breaks. It does stretch the summer out an extra week, which may seem like an eternity to many parents of these youngsters! This would probably be my second choice among the four choices. I do really like the fall break and I like the shorter summer, which this calendar works against, but it is the least radical departure of what we’re doing now. The state like this one better than my first choice for the reasons listed above.
Calendar #3 – Start after labor Day: Out of all the calendars, this is the one I would hate the most, and yet this is the model most school systems in the country use. The idea is to have a longer, more traditional summer. School would not start until the Tuesday after Labor Day. The week-long breaks would be gone and there would be fewer 3-day weekends. Thanksgiving would be a 3 days instead of all week. Second semester would not start until the end of January and school would not end until mid-June! That means no breaks for 3 entire months at the end of the year, when we need them the most! For students with disabilities, the regression factor and fatigue factor become more major issues with this calendar. Extended school year would have to be offered more and for a longer period of time. On the plus side, students attending summer school might get more of a break and teachers might be able to take summer classes. For me, I prefer a “start early, end early” school year. I have done the “end in mid-June” school year before, and was totally spent and exhausted at the end of it. While I’m tired at the end of May now, I couldn’t imagine dragging along for weeks after Memorial Day. And that’s if you don’t have any snow days to make up! Thanks but no thanks.
Option #4 – 4 Day Week: Out of all the option proposed, this one is the most radical, innovative and intriguing. Basically, it would involve attending school Tuesday-Friday for a minimum of one hour longer than the current school day. The school year would be 160 days instead of 180 days but students would actually have more “seat time.”
“Seat time.” That terminology is a huge red flag for me.
The advantages are numerous. First, there is the cost savings just from running buses less often and the cafeteria serving lunches less often. Teacher inservices and workdays would be done on Mondays and involve less schedule disruptions. Students and teachers could do their shopping, banking and other personal business on those days. And I’ve even thought to myself that a 4 day work week might be pretty nice. However, the reality is not the same as the idea. If kids are in school until 4:30, many will be getting on and off the buses in the dark much of the year. By 4:00, many of these kids will be feeling some serious hunger pains from the ever-more-meager lunch portions. And that means most of use teachers will not be leaving until way, way later as we need more daily planning for a longer day.
For students with disabilities, the longer day would be devastating. Fatigue is a constant factor anyway, and that last hour is not going to amount to a full hour’s worth of added learning. Learning is not like factory work, and neither is teaching, The law of diminishing returns will set in and it will amount to a net loss in the long run. For my kids with sever disabilities, we’d be seriously looking at having nap time or something. We’d also be looking at more feeding and changing requirements due to the extra time. If this were a factory or another type of work setting, I’d do it in a second. But not for teaching that requires so much out-of-teaching time in order to prepare. Class time with the students makes up a fraction of the time required to do the job correctly. So those Mondays would hardly be time off. They would be mostly unpaid work days. Nice idea and nice concept, the 4 day work week. But I don’t see it working for me or my kids.
So what we have now looks the best for me and my students. There is a lot of economic and political pressure being brought to bear to get our school district to change. I can see change eventually coming, but not until the concept of “seat time” changes.