How do you add five days to the school year without disrupting family schedules, while increasing student learning and not starting before Labor Day?
Ask Ron Caniff and he’ll tell you: It’s not easy.
The superintendent of Kent ISD, which serves 20 public school districts, starts the 2016-17 school year wishing those districts had more local control of their calendars. After the ISD unsuccessfully tried on behalf of those districts to waive the state law prohibiting school starts before Labor Day, it had to make other late calendar changes to fit in those five days.
Other Districts, Other Weeks
by Charles Honey and Morgan Jarema
Unlike most of the Kent ISD’s 20 school districts, a few are adding instruction days not by cutting Christmas break, but by starting the school year earlier or ending it later.
Rockford Public Schools was the only district to start before Labor Day, beginning classes the week of Aug. 29. The district had submitted its own application to the state for a pre-Labor Day waiver prior to the Kent ISD’s request, then reactivated it when the ISD withdrew.
It was an extensive application process, following discussions with administrators, teachers and parents beginning in spring 2015. But it made great sense for the district, said Superintendent Michael Shibler. A high percentage of students are already back at school in August for athletics and marching band, and many are taking classes by then under the district’s early-college agreements with Ferris State University and Grand Valley State University, Shibler noted.
“We have these programs. We have kids that have strong interest in them,” he said. “Why would I wait a week to start a program that should be starting on the 29th of August?”
Also, the district’s comprehensive summer-school program begins a week or two after school is out, posing a pinch if the school year ran longer, he said.
Rockford’s three-year approval was contingent on studying the potential of an alternative calendar that would include summer months. Shibler said they’ll seek input from parents and students on possibilities, such as rotating two-week breaks following 10 weeks of instruction.
He said he doubts starting before Labor Day will hurt tourism, noting only two parents had called saying they would be on vacation that week. “I said go for it,” he added. “Family comes first.”
In East Grand Rapids Public Schools, students will be in class five days longer in June this school year and next, under an agreement reached with the teachers association. The agreement was in place before the Kent ISD common calendar was issued, requiring the district to receive a state waiver to be out of sync with other districts, said Superintendent Sara Shubel.
EGR officials were in negotiations for a three-year contract with teachers last year when the issue of the additional five days came up. Adding a week to the beginning of the school year, as well as shortening the winter break or time off elsewhere, were considered, and district families were informally asked to weigh in. Shubel said there was not clear support for any one option over the others, so the district decided to try the end-of-the-year option for at least the length of the new contract.
“It was an extremely thoughtful process,” Shubel said. “We looked at what was best for students and for staff – and what would best allow for truly valuable instructional days.”
The district will seek more input from teachers and parents before the contract expires in June 2018, to see if the calendar still meets the community’s needs, she added.
“If you elongate the school year and can’t start school till after Labor Day, naturally, something’s got to give,” Caniff said, adding the Kent ISD was “boxed in” as it worked to increase state-mandated instructional days from 175 to 180 this year.
As a result, the majority of local districts lopped a week off the traditional two-week holiday recess around Christmas and New Year’s, in accord with a common calendar adopted by the Kent ISD this spring.
However, a few received state waivers to depart from the common calendar, to either go a week longer in June or, in Rockford, to begin classes Aug. 29 after receiving its own pre-Labor Day waiver (see sidebar). It made sense for those districts to configure their calendars based on their particular needs, Caniff said, but insisted all districts should be able to do so.
“The frustration is the loss of local control,” he said. “There was a time when local districts and local boards of education could make decisions on what they felt was in the best interest of their district and their families. That slowly has been stripped away.
“This law is a perfect example of it.”
More Days, but No More Money
Caniff also wishes that if the state is going to require more instruction days, it would provide more funding to support them. This year’s increase of $60 to $120 per pupil isn’t enough to cover it, he said, calling the five extra days “an unfunded mandate.”
“I don’t think any of us quarrels with the added days” with a goal of raising student achievement, he said. “It’s just adding the days without the equivalent funding coming along with it.”
Teresa Weatherall Neal agrees. The superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools says many younger teachers will have to pay babysittersto work the additional days without getting additional funds from the district.
“It is so unfortunate that they added the five days and didn’t give us the dollars to pay these people,” Neal said. “People will do it because they work in schools and that’s what we do. But you add 40 hours, that’s a lot to ask people.”
Like most districts, GRPS is abiding by the common calendar adopted by the Kent ISD this spring, after officials withdrew a state application to begin school in 18 of its 20 districts before Labor Day. (Cedar Springs and Kelloggsville were not included; the latter already had a 180-day calendar.)
Caniff said when officials first began talking about a waiver with the Michigan Department of Education late last summer, they were led to believe their application would be “looked upon favorably” if it was tied to gains in student achievement. Kent ISD officials felt they could “easily make that argument,” since it would allow students to have more instruction time prior to taking standardized tests in the spring, Caniff said.
Talks with State Bog Down
However, by January MDE officials were requiring additional rationale for the waiver, Caniff said. Those included a commitment to work toward a year-round balanced calendar required by law for a pre-Labor Day start, which would have required extensive discussion with local districts.
By late winter, the discussions were “languishing too long,” Caniff said. “Meanwhile our phone was ringing every day from parents asking, ‘Can you tell me when school is starting?’ And we weren’t able to give them a clear answer.”
So the Kent ISD withdrew its application and crafted a new common calendar reducing the holiday break. The change was made “a bit late in the game,” Caniff said, adding if the MDE had said at the outset the application wasn’t going to fly, “We would not even have submitted a request.”
A spokesman said once MDE received the Kent ISD’s formal waiver request following the earlier discussions, if felt revisions were needed for approval, such as a proposed tuition-based summer program the MDE thought should be offered free.
“We also felt that as submitted, the overall request was more of a response to the state law requiring an additional five days of instruction” rather than the requirements for a pre-Labor Day start, said Bill DiSessa of MDE. “We wanted to see something closer to a balanced-calendar model benefitting all students in the district.”
In any case, many educators question why the state should prevent schools from starting until after Labor Day – and a late one at that, this year – saying the school calendar should follow what’s best for learning, not tourism.
Besides, Caniff asks, with five more days required, wouldn’t adding them in June cut into tourism just as much as adding them before Labor Day? In any case, he questioned, “Has there been an uptick in the tourism industry due to the post-Labor Day start? I’m not convinced that’s the case.”
In Northview, Superintendent Scott Korpak says it makes more sense to reduce Christmas break than to add five days in June. Like most districts, his will end school Friday, June 9.
“There are so many camps, student jobs and other things that start that following week,” Korpak said. “To go beyond that second Friday limits lots of opportunities for kids.”