More in-depth information about year-round, or balanced, school calendars was shared with the Elkin City Schools Board of Education last Monday as board members investigate the alternative to a traditional calendar.
Caroline Massengill was principal at Wake County Schools’ first school to use a year-round calendar, and prior to retiring was the senior director of year-round schools for the Wake school district.
“We were scared to death, and we had no idea what we were doing,” she said of that first year the calendar was implemented at Kingswood Elementary School in Cary.
Now Wake County has schools operating on multi-track year-round calendars, meaning students are operating on different calendars within the same school building, to keep from having to build more schools, Massengill said.
“You’re looking at it because I think it’s the best way to educate students,” she said. “I’m very biased.”
During the presentation, Massengill highlighted the pros and cons of a year-round calendar as well as challenges which might be faced at all three school levels – elementary, middle and high. “I don’t think there isn’t a question someone hasn’t asked me about year-round schools,” she said of aiding other systems in looking at the alternative calendar options.
In looking at the current North Carolina school calendar law, she said it is “one of the strictest in the country. I do not love this law.”
The law is “very strict” on local school systems’ start and end dates for the school year, with the only exceptions being year-round, charter and cooperative initiative high schools, which are high schools who have gotten a waiver for a reason such as matching a community college schedule for an early college high school program.
She said the state will not grant waivers for educational reasons such as wanting to be sure high school exams are prior to the Christmas break. They will only be granted for missing school for weather-related issues like snow or high winds, and that requires eight days to have been missed during each of four years during the most 10-year span.
She provided a couple of examples of year-round calendars being utilized in North Carolina, one in Union County and one in Durham. Typically they start school the last couple of weeks of July and go for about 45 days then getting a couple of weeks break. Breaks, called intersessions, are usually scheduled with one in the fall, one around Christmas and another around Easter in the spring. Summers ranged from five to seven weeks off for students depending on the calendar chosen.
For teachers, annual leave days, holidays and teacher workdays remain built into the calendar. “There is flexibility in this single-track calendar,” she said, explaining with an intersession in September, high-schoolers could have their exams done prior to Christmas break.
Massengill said just altering a calendar alone will not make the students’ better academically, it’s what the school system does with the intersessions such as remediation and enrichment opportunities which will enhance their education.
“Based on my experience, my teachers and I really did see an improvement in the retention of information. It was like turning the page of a book and continuing,” she said. “And for the kids, that was huge. For some of my teachers, I had a couple who came to me and requested keeping the students two years in a row because they difference they were seeing in the students. They knew the students and the parents.”
Keeping students with the same teacher is called looping, explained Superintendent Dr. Randy Bledsoe, while Elkin Elementary School Pam Colbert said she had the opportunity to loop with her students when she was teaching and said, “It was great.”
Two advantages to looping, which can be done on a traditional calendar as well, Massengill said is it builds trust with parents and students and the teachers stay fresh and don’t have to repeat the same information year after year.
Other benefits for year-round schools for Massengill was her teachers had the opportunity while students were on intersession to observe in classrooms on a traditional classroom for professional development, and for those who wanted to , the teachers could substitute teach. She said it was easier to plan parent conferencing during intersession also.
“It provided more vacation options for families,” she said. “The teachers would say every nine weeks I get a break, I can catch my breath. It gives you a chance to catch your breath and get a new perspective.”
She said the biggest con to year-round calendars is it is hard for some people to accept change. “Some people have a hard time with change. Our kids aren’t working in tobacco fields anymore. So this calendar is much more balanced,” Massengill explained.
Other cons can be challenges with child care and summer camps and activities such as Bible school. But she said people got used to the calendar and learned to schedule around it. School bus transportation can be an issue if all of the schools aren’t on the year-round calendar as well.
“High school athletics can be a pro or con. I was in elementary, but I can tell you in our area, the kids come back in August to practice for football anyway,” she said.
It was pointed out that sports go on now even if school is out for Christmas break or spring break.
Another con might be the need for high-schoolers to have summer jobs, or for teachers to have summer jobs.
“This is no different than what you are doing now. It’s not going to change the academic standing of a kid, or alter test scores. It’s what you do and how you use it that can change things,” Massengill said of the alternative calendar.
She said the cost of a year-round calendar versus a traditional calendar will be similar, unless buses are on a different schedule if elementary or middle are on year-round and not high school.
“If you decide to go to year-round calendar, do it slowly and deliberately with buy-in from your community,” she advised the board. “You will not get 100 percent buy-in from everybody. You need to hear people out and hear and address their concerns.”
Also, she pointed out that the state board of education won’t approve it as year-round if there are more than seven weeks in the summer break, because that will put them in a modified calendar.
“Durham is where my sister’s kid goes, and she loves it,” noted school board Chair Dr. Richard Brinegar.
As far as steps to take if transitioning to the year-round schedule, Massengill said she made sure she went to the schools to explain what the calendar and educational year looked like. “Most people just want to be heard. Explain it to them and let them be heard,” she said.
“A teacher would say, ‘But I have a cruise planned in August,’” Massengill said of the first year a school is set to go on year-round. “I would say, ‘You’re going, just don’t plan on in August the next year.’ The first year you make a lot of concessions for teachers and parents.
“We hardly had any teachers transfer. With parents, there were a lot of protests in Wake, but once the families were on it, they loved it,” she said.
If the Elkin school board decided it wanted to pursue a year-round calendar, Massengill said the earliest it could be implemented would be 2017-18, and it would have to have approval from the state.
The school board made no indication at its meeting what the future would hold for school calendars in Elkin.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.