Wed, Apr 16, 2014 ●
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The Universal Notebook: Monkeying with the school calendar

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: Monkeying with the school calendar

The Portland School Department last week proposed a series of changes to the school-year calendar that make some sense from the perspective of teaching and learning.

Whether the proposed schedule changes will make sense from the perspective of teachers, staff, parents and students is another story.

Among key changes being contemplated are:

• Starting high school an hour later because teenagers are not awake and alert early in the morning.

• Extending the school day by one hour to allow for more instructional time, and lengthening the school year for the same reason.

• Shortening the summer vacation to reduce the loss of learning momentum from year to year.

•  And rolling the traditional February and April vacations into one March break, as prep schools do.

When I was on the Yarmouth School Committee in the 1990s, we considered some of these changes and even implemented a few. Most were nonstarters, as they probably will be in Portland.

Vacation consolidation was one of my pet causes. I’ve always thought the February and April breaks were a waste and a nuisance, but then I don’t ski or take vacation trips.

I imagine, however, that Portland will get the same pushback from its teachers and staff that Yarmouth did when we contemplated a March vacation. If you have children (or a spouse) in another school district, how are you supposed to manage suddenly being on two different vacation schedules?

The fundamental problem you run into when you start monkeying with the school calendar is that you can’t really do it alone. If you’re not on the same schedule as other local school systems, you’re asking for trouble.

If Portland and Deering high schools, for instance, start an hour later and lengthen the school day by an hour, students would be getting out around 4 p.m. That’s going to conflict with a lot of extracurricular activities and interscholastic athletics. Unless your baseball and softball fields and those of your opponents all have lights, for example, you can’t start a ballgame at 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. in May.

There is also the matter of cost. Lengthen the school year and the school day and you’re going to have to compensate teachers and staff accordingly.

One of the few calendar changes we did enact in Yarmouth was adding five teacher in-service days to enhance professional development and five student days to increase learning time, extending the school year from 180 to 185 days. The Maine Legislature has repeatedly tried and failed to do the same statewide.

Some countries do have much longer school years than the U.S., but at what cost? Japan, for instance, has 243 school days a year, but Japan also has a word for “death from overwork:” karoshi.

Even though President Obama has proposed a 200-day school year and there are periodic calls for year-round schooling, I don’t see that happening in Maine any time soon. For one thing, several studies have concluded that there is no significant correlation between instructional time and student achievement. For another, people in cold, dark, wintry Maine jealously guard their summer vacations.

Just keeping kids in school a week longer in Yarmouth met with so many objections from families and students with summer commitments that we were forced to rethink the five extra students days. Teachers were naturally concerned about losing financial gains made when the year was lengthened, so we hit upon a compromise that, in retrospect, seems like one of the worst decisions of my 1995-2001 School Committee tenure.

To preserve the extra class time and protect teacher salary gains, we came up with the brilliant idea of spreading the five extra days out over the school year in 15-20 minute increments by starting school a little earlier each day. I’m not sure we got the educational bang for the buck we had hoped for, especially given the current thinking that high school should start later in the day, not earlier.

One step forward, two steps back. Good luck, Portland. Changing the school calendar is never as easy as one might think.