News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

August 12, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Seasons of Change

Early start of classes here looks old-school compared to ‘balanced calendars’

TERRE HAUTE — Calendars, seasons and traditions aren’t so tightly bound these days.

Major League Baseball finished its World Series in November twice in the past three seasons. If that happened in the 1970s, Reggie Jackson may have been called “Mr. October-November.” Presidential election cycles begin the day after the inauguration. Christmas displays hit stores the day after Halloween. Black Friday now begins on Thursday.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

Speaking of time, it may be time for the Webster’s Dictionary review panel to adopt a new word that embraces the seasonal blending …

Sumautumn.

“Summer” vacation ends Tuesday for many Indiana school kids, including those in Vigo County. The Aug. 14 start date for classes is the earliest locally since at least 1975, and maybe ever. The doors open 40 days before summer officially turns into fall on Sept. 22.

Early as that seems, a growing number of school districts around the state are already in session, part of a trend toward “balanced calendars.”

Such schedules involve summer breaks of seven or eight weeks, with two-week breaks in the fall, winter and spring. The wave has hit numerous school systems in central and southern Indiana. Those include parts of Indianapolis and Marion County, Brownsburg, Franklin Township, Milan, South Dearborn, Brown County, New Castle, Avon, Lanesville, Southern Hancock and New Albany-Floyd County. (The Indiana Department of Education no longer tracks school calendar formats, so a comprehensive list is unavailable.)

The trend “is kind of gaining some steam,” said Steve Morris, a former Terre Haute resident and now superintendent of Lanesville Community Schools, which has used balanced calendars for the past nine years. The first bell rang there on July 26. Other “balanced” schools began classes the first week of August.

The cause of that momentum remains murky.

“For the life of me, I don’t know why,” said Terry Spradlin of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) at Indiana University in Bloomington. “There doesn’t seem to be any new research.”

Indeed, the concept of “year-round” schooling (as balanced calendars were once called) began in California but has since waned there. Those schedules are used in various parts of the country, and as recently as 2008, 30 states had one or more balanced districts. The virtues cited by its proponents include less lost learning over the shorter summer vacation, improved student and teacher attendance, more opportunities for structured remediation, and less expensive travel dates for working families.

Balanced calendars “certainly seem like something that has become very popular, but the reasons vary by district,” said Maggie Hoernemann, superintendent of Avon Community School Corp.

Watching the

neighbors

The popularity in Indiana appears to involve a domino effect. When one school district adopts a balanced calendar, neighboring school corporations feel the impact. Bordering school systems often share resources in cooperative programs, such as vocational or special education. Families with children participating in those programs outside their home district face a difficult choice when districts’ calendars no longer align — transfer, or go without those unique courses.

Such border pressure merely tips the scales, though, for districts leaning toward a balanced calendar.

The Community School Corp. of Southern Hancock County shared vocational-ed and special-ed programs with neighbors who recently changed to balanced schedules. So, Southern Hancock changed, too, starting this fall. Still, Superintendent James Halik sees crucial advantages to the new calendar beyond uniformity with surrounding schools.

Near the top of his list is improved attendance.

In the past, teachers and students often took off the Friday prior to Southern Hancock’s traditional one-week spring break, Halik said. As that routine became entrenched, the district added that Friday as a day off. Students and teachers then began taking Thursday off before the break. “Now, they’ve got two full weeks at spring break, and it will help our attendance, and we’re graded on our attendance,” Halik said, referring to state school accountability ratings.

Better attendance “is crucial,” Hoernemann confirmed.

“We have wonderful substitute teachers who do a great job,” she added, “but it is not the same as a teacher assigned to those young people.”

In terms of student attendance, CEEP released a study last month showing that barely 25 percent of pupils in grades 6-8 who missed 18 school days or more per year ended up graduating from high school. As Woody Allen once said, 90 percent of success is just showing up.

Getaways refresh

The two-week breaks at fall, winter and spring offer additional pluses, according to the balanced-calendar districts.

Extended breaks reduce teacher burnout, they contend. Hoernemann hopes her staff utilizes the time off. “This fall, I’d really like our teachers and our principals to take that two-week break,” she said.

“I can say it’s been wonderful to go on vacation in October,” said Morris, in his ninth year at Lanesville. “The weather is great, and the rates are really reasonable.”

Those non-peak travel seasons in fall, winter and spring also allow working parents of students cheaper options for family getaways. Many employers’ prime production months occur in summer, such as construction companies, and limit the number of employee vacations during those slots, Halik said. “This is more applicable to real-world, everyday life,” Halik added. “If we don’t change and shift with the times, we’re just not going to make it, and a balanced calendar definitely fits to the working mom and dad.”

The two-week breaks — known as intercessions — give districts a chance to provide immediate remedial classes for at-risk kids. Many use the first week of those breaks for half-day remediation. Teachers volunteer to work those shifts, but get paid fully, Morris said. Of course, the down side is that everyone participating in those extra-time classes misses out on time off.

“That’s really the only negative [of balanced scheduling] I’ve been able to see,” Morris said, “and that’s not really insurmountable.”

High-schoolers taking spring Advanced Placement tests could lose break time, too. With AP tests looming in May, they may need to study through that two-week “vacation.” “It’s very conceivable those students are going to be working through their spring breaks,” Hoernemann said.

Despite the quirks, balanced calendars got solid support in parent surveys, Halik and Hoernemann explained. Faculty and students favored the move, too. “They love our balanced calendar,” Halik said.

Tradition still favored

Not everyone is convinced, though.

Another movement seeks to expand, not reduce, Indiana schools’ summer breaks. Save Indiana Summers wants school start dates to stop creeping earlier and earlier into August. In addition to losing be-a-kid time in summer, the organization sees other negatives from shorter summer breaks — lost opportunities for teens to get jobs, and child-care complications. Recent attempts to get state legislators to enforce a later start have failed. Save Indiana Summers spokeswoman Tina Bruno said the group has amended its call for a post-Labor Day start of classes, and now targets the fourth Monday in August.

If that happened in the 2012-2013 school year, the 180-day calendar could end on June 7.

Instead, students in Vigo County begin classes Tuesday and keep at it until May 30, 2013. In between, they’ll have multiple holidays and breaks on a calendar similar to those of previous years. A four-day weekend in October. Three days at Thanksgiving. Two weeks at Christmas. A week for spring break. Three Fridays off in May, if snow days aren’t used.

The topic of a balanced schedule has come up, said Ray Azar, Vigo County School Corp. director of student services, “but it’s never gone beyond a discussion stage.” With passionate opinions on both sides, he added, “We’ve tried to have a happy medium, and that’s where we are.”

Thus, the 74 days of summer vacation are about to come to an end, kids. Any way you slice it, the school year has 180 days. Use it wisely.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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