Knox County Schools’ Proposed “Balanced Calendar” Raises Child-Care Concerns

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Take a two-week vacation for every nine weeks you spend trapped behind a school desk.

To your average kid, it probably sounds like heaven. But it could be reality if the Knox County school board votes to shift to a “balanced calendar,” which shortens summer but adds hefty breaks between academic quarters.

Many parents like the idea of having more flexible vacation time. But what if you can’t take off work and don’t have Grandma around to watch the kids? Will you be able to find brief, nearby child care you can afford? What about the preschools that set their calendars based on the public schools’? (Try finding three-week child care for a toddler in late winter.)

These are the questions parents are posing to Knox County Schools officials and daycare providers. At more than 30 public meetings representing all the schools, school officials listened and answered the questions they could about the proposed calendar. But in many cases, no one knows the answers yet.

Elizabeth Alves, chief academic officer for Knox County Schools, says the balanced calendar isn’t a done deal. So far, the most common concern raised by parents is child care, she says. The district also invited child-care providers to two public meetings about the balanced calendar last week.

“I definitely hear the working parents—they are just scared to death,” says Pam Walker, executive director of Kids Place Inc., a nonprofit organization that operates a preschool in East Knoxville and provides after-school care at 10 elementary schools.

This year, about 150 school-age kids attended spring-break camp at Kids Place’s sole campus outside the schools. “But some parents left [their elementary-age kids] latch-key because the drive is too much. I don’t want us to go back to that,” Walker said at one of the district’s public meetings last week. “I am afraid for the single moms and all the people who just don’t have much support.”

The change could also send a curveball to families with preschool-age children, since many preschools follow the Knox County Schools calendar. The state requires smaller class sizes for preschoolers, so many camps and school-based programs are closed to children under 5.

Helping Kids Catch Up—for a Price
Knox County is considering two possibilities for the balanced calendar: At the end of each 45-day quarter, students would have either a two- or a three-week break. Those extra “intersession” days would be pulled from the traditional summer break, reducing summer to either 43 or 28 days off.

The public seems more interested in the model using two-week breaks, Alves said at a public meeting last week.

In theory, shorter summer breaks reduce the amount of learning loss between school years, and the intersessions provide extra time to help struggling students. Alves acknowledges that research supporting this is sparse. “But many of the studies do show a positive impact, particularly for students who are struggling or are at risk,” she says. “The research is pretty clear on this: It does improve student and teacher attendance and morale, improves student behavior, and reduces discipline incidents.”

While few districts use the balanced calendar, Knox County would not exactly be a pioneer, even locally. Maryville and Alcoa have used the model for many years. One elementary school and a preschool in Oak Ridge also used a balanced calendar for more than a decade, and that entire school district is switching to a balanced calendar starting this fall.

These districts are all much smaller than Knox County’s. But Alves says district leaders have also sought advice from the school district in Reno, Nev., a larger system that has switched successfully to the balanced calendar.

There are a few significant differences between what local school districts with balanced calendars do and what Knox County is proposing. Oak Ridge and Maryville are offering classes to students during the intercessions: intervention for those who are struggling, and enrichment for those who are advanced. It’s unclear whether Knoxville will.

Alcoa has offered intervention at its middle school during the breaks but will probably stop, says schools director Brian Bell, who prefers getting everyone out of the building to return refreshed.

Knox County school leaders would like to offer intervention, Alves says, but the district may not be able to afford it. 

Parents like Julie Williams, who serves on the Knox County Schools’ district advisory council, question making the change if intervention isn’t offered. “I’m not crazy about it,” she says. “Is it really helping the people it’s supposed to help, or is it just making their lives harder?”

Alves says the school board will likely decide in May or June whether to move to a balanced calendar for the 2016-17 school year (or later). But the board won’t be asked to vote until officials “at least conceptually” understand the cost and proposed school locations for intersession classes, Alves says. It’s possible summer school and after-school grants could be redirected to cover the cost of teacher pay and student transportation for intervention, she says.

No Child Left Alone
The availability of child care is another key difference between Knox County Schools and other local districts using the balanced calendar. The others all offer low-cost, full-day child care at the schools during intersession breaks, including summer break.

Knox County Schools contracts with nonprofit child-care organizations to provide after-school care at many elementary schools, but for the last two years those programs have not been allowed to operate at schools during breaks.

That has been a problem for families, say Walker (with Kids Place) and Sindy Dawkins-Schade, executive director of Shades of Development, which provides after-school care at four rural elementary schools. Dawkins-Schade says she surveyed parents who use her program and found many were fearful about where their children would go during the intersessions.

Although programs like Kids Place and the YMCA offer camps at locations outside school during breaks, for parents who work several jobs or rely on public transportation, a longer drive can be tricky.

At a public meeting last week, Knox County Schools chief of staff Russ Oaks said schools use breaks to do maintenance such as painting and floor-buffing that can’t be done with students nearby. But Kids Place officials suggested that day care be allowed at certain geographically chosen schools that could serve children from several nearby school zones while maintenance happens at other schools. Oaks said the district would consider the idea.

The YMCA provides after-school care at many West Knoxville schools and off-site camps during summer and spring break. Lori Humphreys, YMCA district director of child care services, says the program whic would probably expand that model to cover intersessions.

Helen Wimbley, who owns ABC Kiddie Academy and East Knoxville Learning Center, said although she was unfamiliar with the proposed calendar change she’d like to serve school kids during the breaks if she can get trained teachers to step in. She notes that day-care teachers must generally have background checks, a physical, and 18 months of training.

But, she says, “It’s a matter of day-care providers sitting down together and deciding how to do this and meet with DHS licensing counselors.”

Kids Place also expects challenges finding teachers for two-week periods. Many of their staffers are college students who would probably couldn’t teach during the middle of a semester, says program manager Josh Allis.

Some teachers, particularly at part-day preschool programs, also have children in public school and might be unable to work during breaks.

Unlike their older counterparts, preschool students get little benefit from changes in routine. “We need
to see how it fits in with our younger students who are going to be coming to you very soon,” said one preschool representative at a recent public meeting.

Marty Troutman, director of the West Hills Baptist Preschool and Kindergarten, says her program generally follows the Knox Schools calendar, but she doubts parents would want that to continue with a balanced calendar.

“They can’t afford a two-week vacation three times a year,” she says. Plus, “with little kids, routine is really important. Starting and stopping is really hard for them.”

The change would raise other questions. Would a longer school year lead to increased preschool tuition? Would some camps be eliminated?

“If you do this, it affects your whole community: when college starts, when summer jobs start, even access to healthy meals for kids on free and reduced lunch,” Troutman says.

Tate’s Day Camp, a popular summer-long camp in West Knoxville, sent an email to parents in February strafing the balanced calendar and questioning the quality of child care during the breaks.

“We can’t imagine finding qualified people that could work that crazy schedule unless the teachers step up to fill the gap, and if we’re using teachers, why don’t we just let them teach and call it school?” stated the letter, which was signed by camp director Chris Strevel.

But some parents are enthusiastic about the balanced calendar.

“I am 100 percent in favor of it,” says attorney Sara Compher-Rice, who would like to be able to take family vacations during cheaper, off-peak times and to send her son to specialty camps during the breaks. She says she’d prefer her 8-year-old didn’t waste up to a month every fall on review because of summer learning loss.

Alex Goldberg, who teaches middle school in Oak Ridge but whose sons attend Bluegrass Elementary School in Knox County, says he supports the change but wishes both school districts would go even further: Adopt a “real” year-round calendar.

“To me, that’s the one that makes the most sense in terms of bridging the achievement gap,” Goldberg says. “If we’re going to change it, let’s go all-in.”

He expresses surprise that some parents are concerned about child care, saying that if they manage over the current breaks, the same solutions should work for the same costs during intersessions. “My feeling is child caregivers and camps are going to be clamoring for everyone’s business,” he says.

 See AlsoAdvice From Local School Systems that “Balanced” their Calendars

Community Survey
Knox County parents, teachers, students, and community members will have a chance to sound off about the perks and pitfalls the balanced calendar through a community survey in the next few weeks. The Knoxville Chamber will help distribute the survey to its contacts. The survey will also be available directly on the school system’s website: knoxschools.org. Comments on the proposal may be emailed to balancedcalendar@knoxschools.org.

Correction 4/21/15: An earlier version of this story misidentified Alex Goldberg as “Alex Goldman.”

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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