Lessons Learned: Advice From Local School Systems That “Balanced” Their Calendars

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See AlsoKnox County’s Proposed “Balanced Calendar” Raises Child-Care Concerns

Change is tough, but local school districts that have switched to a balanced calendar have never looked back.

“I can tell you, out of all the things we do in Alcoa, one of the most popular things we have is our calendar,” says Brian Bell, director of Alcoa City Schools, which has had a balanced calendar for 13 years.

Maryville has had some form of a balanced calendar for “many years,” but moved to the model with two weeks off at the end of each quarter about five years ago, says Rick Wilson, Maryville Schools assistant director.

Knoxville is holding community meetings and planning a community survey on the same idea. Here, the balanced calendar was first proposed by educators at Austin-East and Fulton high schools who were trying to improve student academic performance, says Elizabeth Alves, chief academic officer for Knox County Schools. The school board decided varying school schedules would cause too many problems, she says.

“I don’t know honestly if there are measurable gains in academics,” Bell says. “But sometimes I think those breaks we have during the year are just as important as the academics” because of how much they boost morale.

Maryville offers classes for about three days of the breaks to bring lagging students up to speed and challenge students who are ahead, says Rick Wilson, assistant director of Maryville City Schools. For example, in fourth grade his daughter took an enrichment class on aquatic life that included an overnight trip to the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Wilson says Maryville has seen academic improvements as a result. At the middle and high school levels, it often comes down to students having time to make up missed work during the intersessions. Wilson says elementary student scores on state tests have increased, and last year the district’s graduation rate reached its highest point ever at 96 percent.

Alves says some Knox parents have worried whether the balanced calendar could complicate high school block schedules and hurt sports teams, but Wilson says these are manageable challenges. To the sports concern, Bell points out that Alcoa has won 13 state football championships.

Oak Ridge is switching the entire district to a balanced calendar this fall. School board president Keys Fillauer says one Oak Ridge elementary school has been using a balanced calendar for more than a decade to better serve a low-income, transient population of students.

“Since then, they have shown consistent improvement in their test scores,” he says. “Whether that’s the direct result of the balanced calendar is hard to say.”

Having schools on different calendars was messy, however, and Fillauer says most parents are glad to have the whole district back on one schedule. The school board unanimously agreed to the change now mostly because a new superintendent made a good case for it, he says. But first, the school system conducted two community surveys, both finding about 70 percent support for the balanced calendar.

But even with the new calendar starting in July, Oak Ridge is still working out answers to basic questions. It hasn’t decided how long the intervention classes will last during the breaks, which schools will hold them, how many students will be served or exactly how students will be chosen.

The school district also isn’t sure how much the change will cost, but Fillauer says he doesn’t think it will wallop the wallet.

“That’s kind of one of the unknowns until we see how many staff we have that want to be involved and what our student load is going to be,” Fillauer says.

Teachers that were already being paid to work summer school or extended day programs may shift some of that work to the intersession breaks, offsetting the costs. Fillauer says Oak Ridge will still offer summer school in some form, but it could be similar to the instruction offered during intersessions. The district is also seeking grant money.

Even as it tries to iron out next year’s details, the school board started discussing Oak Ridge’s 2016/17 school calendar a few weeks ago. The job is never done.

Fillauer’s advice to school districts mulling new ways to divvy up the year: “Be prepared for the unknown. Make sure you have staff, parent, student, and community involvement. And understand: Like everything else, not everybody’s going to be for it.”

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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