The stars in Nashville’s education universe appear to be aligned behind a new balanced public school calendar that would add six days of in-class instruction and begin school in July. Those praising the benefits of what could amount to a bold change for a consistently beleaguered school system include Director of Schools Jesse Register, as well as some school board members, parents and educators.
There is, of course, the obvious debate over whether more classroom time outweighs a longer summer break and the convenience of vacation. But with momentum behind the change, the more intriguing question could be whether a Metro Council and mayor who call education the city’s top priority will find $20 million in next year’s budget to accommodate the move.
Register, who adopted versions of balanced calendars at select schools during his stints as superintendent in Chattanooga and Statesville, N.C., has recommended consideration of a 2012-2013 calendar that would start school on July 25 and feature two two-week breaks in the spring and fall, set aside as “intercession” options for the remediation and enrichment of students. By carving out 10 days for teacher training, he said the calendar would add two more weeks to the workload of teachers, paid
accordingly, while increasing instructional learning from 174 to 180 days.
“I think time is a really important variable that we need to take advantage of,” Register said. “In our country, our school year is cut short in many respects over what we see in a lot of other countries that value education. I noticed a difference when I came from North Carolina to Tennessee in the mid-’90s, where in North Carolina teachers worked two weeks longer and students went to school a full 180 days a year. And that’s really the proposal.”
But Register’s final recommendation and the board’s decisive action — on pace for as early as next month — will likely depend on landing the necessary $20 million in next year’s budget. If that’s the case, the school board could also approve a Plan B of sorts, which would include one of three options: a different balanced calendar, starting school on Aug. 1 (which requires no additional funding), or two alternate traditional calendars. All three would have 176 days of instructional time.
Faced with vanishing federal stimulus dollars, the council last week approved $670.5 million in funding for schools, a $37 million increase over the previous year. Dipping into the school’s debt reserve funds made possible the upgrade, which still doesn’t account for 334 teaching positions that were axed because federal stimulus funds had been tapped out. For the 2012-2013 fiscal year, school budget costs will undoubtedly increase as a result of automatic salary increases, inflation and other demands. So will there be room for an additional $20 million for the longer calendar?
For now, conversations between Register and Mayor Karl Dean on the district’s school calendar haven’t begun. In an email, mayor’s office spokeswoman Tam Gordon said Dean supports the school board’s efforts to improve performance but has had no specific discussions with Register about the calendar proposal.
The balanced calendar option that would turn to a July 25 start date would essentially have students attend school for nine-week periods broken up by intercession periods, which could include ACT tutoring, computer labs or other instruction. The concept shouldn’t be confused with a year-round calendar, because it still incorporates a summer break, stretching from May 30 to late July.
“We’re in a situation where we need to be innovative and start thinking outside the box,” said Erica Lanier, chair of the schools director’s Parent Advisory Council.
“I don’t perceive it being a hard sell or something that parents collectively are not going to buy into, simply because when you look at it, you’re basically only looking at a two-week difference in the amount of time the children are out,” she said. “Basically, it’s giving us the built-in intercessions, which is a win-win. It’s identifying those children that n eed help and giving them an opportunity to get that help.”
Metro school officials are still in the process of soliciting input from Nashvillians on the issue. They’ve set up a Facebook page devoted to it, reviewed emails and held an online chat-room discussion last week. The online discourse revealed concerns that ranged from utility costs for more air-conditioning to whether $20 million could be better spent investing in smaller class sizes or enhanced technology. In other forums, some have wondered whether adequate child care would be available during the extended spring and fall breaks.
School board member Michael Hayes, who represents the Green Hills area, said his constituents have expressed a wide range of thoughts about the July 25 proposal. From his personal research, though, he said the idea offers some plusses.
“The research that I’ve read — limited to articles in trade magazines, Education Weekly, Education Today, some books — has really touted the idea of a balanced calendar,” Hayes said, “particularly in an urban school district that has a heavy population of English Language Learners.”
It’s the ELL population — non-English-speaking students who must overcome a language barrier in their learning — who could gain the most from the shorter summer break. Twenty-two percent of Metro’s 78,400 students come from non-English-speaking homes. Of those, 13 percent have limited English proficiency, and 10 percent are considered active English learners. Metro accounts for 30 percent of the state’s entire ELL population.
In a January City Paper cover story, Tusculum Elementary School principal Diane Chumley — who has since retired — explained the challenge lengthy breaks pose to ELL students this way: “They don’t keep what they’ve learned. I think it’s just due to the fact that it’s such a long time that they go back home. No one speaks English, so they all of a sudden don’t have any vocabulary spoken to them that we’ve been trying to teach them.”
Julie Lamb, a Metro parent whose daughter is heading to Hillwood High School this fall, said she likes the balanced calendar, but it all boils down to money.
“The idea behind remediation and enrichment at breaks, if it is done correctly, to me would be a great tool for many, many, many children — to have opportunities that are not presented very much in the classroom these days,” Lamb said. “But I don’t believe they have the money to do it correctly. There’s no sense in doing it if we’re not going to do it right.”
Lamb recalled her work on the district’s balanced calendar committee five years ago, when stakeholders last explored the subject. She still has results from phone surveys that show 48 percent of respondents supported the balanced calendar then, compared with 42 percent who preferred the traditional approach.
The school board ultimately didn’t adopt the new calendar. Former board member David Fox said the difference was that the one five years ago didn’t call for more instructional time.
“That’s why I wasn’t persuaded that it was worth the effort,” Fox said.