by Peg Rousenau, Save Our Summer (SOS) Coalition Committee member
The Champlain Valley Superintendents Association (CVSA), composed of the superintendents of Chittenden, Grand Isle, and Franklin counties, has proposed a new public school calendar that will maintain the current number of student instruction days (175) but will take away two weeks of summer vacation and add additional vacations within the school year. This calendar, called Calendar 2.0, is proposed to take effect beginning with the 2014-15 school year when the first day of school will be Aug. 20 and the last day June 22. A week of vacation will be added in late October, and winter and spring breaks will be extended to two weeks each. The vacation times, called “intercessions,” will also serve as remedial instruction periods for students who are performing below standards. Very little information has been presented to the public regarding the new calendar, yet the proposal is already well into the community-input phase of the plan before being submitted for adoption in early 2014.
A group of parents, educators, and community members who have been reviewing the proposal have concluded that the changes will not meet the intended objectives and are even likely to have negative outcomes for students, educators, and the community. Ten reasons to oppose adopting Calendar 2.0 follow:
1. Summer break provides critical learning and recharging time for educators and students. Learning occurs outside of school as much as it does in school, and the current summer break allows for a wide range of extra-curricular activities. Learning the important skill of independent or self-directed play, or taking adequate time to reflect upon and rebuild excitement for the next school year, many growth opportunities are only available during this expanded period of time. Although Calendar 2.0 is intended to minimize regression of skills, there is no evidence to show that it will actually have any effect on regression. What’s more, the loss of these critical weeks could impede the acquisition of other skills and capacities that are vital to child development and well-being but are harder to measure. Many adults cite a non-school summer experience in childhood as the event responsible for invigorating their school involvement and providing them with a tangible link between their education and their adult life. These critical developmental opportunities are threatened by the move to a calendar that reduces access to activities uniquely suited to the current summer break period. During summer break, the knowledge gained in school is applied and reinforced.
2. Summer in Vermont is short and special. There is hardly a place that offers a richer diversity of cultural experiences in a more beautiful landscape and climate than Vermont. June through August provides for the ultimate “stay-cation,” and the range of experiences for children, whether of childcare and enhancement purposes, or of the simple, spontaneous variety, is unparalleled. Many opportunities are not available during the times proposed as vacation (late October, early March, and early May) in the proposed expanded calendar. Local recreation opportunities, such as fishing, hiking, tending a garden plot, or riding on the bike path, tend to be easier to plan and inexpensive in the summer. What’s more, research shows that children are more likely to unplug electronics and engage in other activities when the weather is inviting and recreation options abound.
3. There is no evidence to support the likelihood that the proposed calendar will improve student outcomes. The proposed calendar is purely experimental and there is no data to show that it will have a positive effect on outcomes. Indeed, what constitutes a successful “outcome” has not been identified, nor has any method of measuring efficacy of the change been included as part of the proposal. The online information provided for the public cites the “Agenda for a World-Class Education System” as the impetus for the change, yet there is no evidence for how or why the calendar would meet any of the broadly defined goals of the agenda.
4. Intercession programming will likely cost money and/or take money from other student programs. Those committed to promoting a top-notch education system understand that improvements sometimes come with a price tag, but those costs must be justified by compelling cost-benefit data. This plan does not provide any convincing research or model example to support an additional community investment or removal of current programs. While the proposal claims that the new calendar will be a budget-neutral change, a plan that details how intersession programs will be funded has still not been explained. The suggestions that funds could be transferred from other areas such as “traditional summer school and after school tutoring programs” to cover the cost of the programs is worrisome.
5. The new break periods will create childcare difficulties for working families. Most full-time workers have only three to four weeks of vacation per year and will still need the same amount of childcare. With the new schedule, they will be required to find childcare during times when few options exist. Certainly, some options will arise to fill the gap, but with warm weather-dependent infrastructure unavailable (traditional camps), college students engaged in study, and many institutions that house summer programs obligated to give priority to their “in-season” schedule and users, these options are likely to be limited, competitive, and expensive.
6. The new calendar will make the school-year “treadmill” run even longer. A goal of the new schedule is to “get off the school treadmill” by providing “time for families and school community to decompress” during the expanded non-summer vacations. However, it’s unlikely that teachers and staff will receive time off if the school community will be simultaneously organizing and running the remedial and enrichment programs, “analyzing student data,” “customizing individual learning plans,” and attending workshops and trainings. In fact, preparing for the intercessions programs will likely require advance planning during regular teaching days, further stretching the already limited time of staff and educators. Families with children who have been recommended for remediation will also be limited in their ability to enjoy time together, vacations, or downtime, as they will be required to support their child attending the program, both logistically and financially.
7. The calendar is incompatible with those of other institutions. There are long-standing partnerships with local universities and organizations in the Champlain Valley that have mutually beneficial relationships (student teachers, field trip programs, visiting artists, etc.) with the public schools and some won’t be able to accommodate the needs of the school if the calendar is changed. Preparation time for nationally organized tests (such as AP and SATs) and application deadlines could also be impacted and more pressure put on educators to “cram” information into a shorter time period. Interscholastic and town sport playoff seasons could become a logistical nightmare if they run further into the summer season and compete for limited venue space. Other cultural, civic, and sports organizations following the school calendar may also find the proposed calendar financially disruptive if students can no longer participate.
8. Older students need an extended period available beyond the school year if they are to gain vital work, internship, and life skill experience. High school students gain valuable life experience as well as money for college by working and volunteering in the community during the summer. Many employers depend on these students to staff restaurants, beaches, camps, and landscaping businesses, and are only able to employ them during the busy season. Students may find it difficult to find jobs if their availability is shortened by several weeks. Many high school students would also not be able to participate in academic, cultural, and sports programs that run for the duration of the current summer break.
9. Separate remediation sessions during school-year vacations could stigmatize and demoralize children who are struggling academically. Every attempt should be made to differentiate education during the regular school session so that all children feel supported and included in the learning community. Faculty does as much as possible to immediately address learning concerns. Traditional summer school provides focused study for students who would benefit from additional remediation. If this system is inadequate, then changes should be made to maintain the framework of inclusion during the school year. Requiring remediation for some students during times when their peers are enjoying vacation could potentially have a devastating effect on self-esteem and result in further eroding their enthusiasm for school. These children are just as entitled to breaks and may require them even more.
10. Kids do not have as much focus for long school days in the summer. A well-run, traditional summer school has many opportunities for creativity and tends to occur after several weeks of break when students and staff are refreshed. The days are typically shorter, allowing time for ample physical play in addition to school time, and often take advantage of curricula structured around outdoor-based studies. Parents and teachers know the anticipation that builds as temperatures rise. Starting school when summer is still fully “in-swing” is not conducive to optimal learning. Historically the June-August break arose from the reality that buildings become stifling in the summer, and to this day, few schools are outfitted with air conditioning. In a time of tight school budgets and concerns about increased consumption of fossil fuels, school retro-fitting seems unwise and wasteful.
The proposed 2014-15 school calendar is currently in the community input phase before going before school boards and administrators for a vote to adopt it. Please take a few minutes to email or write your local superintendent, school principal, or school board member, or local newspaper and let them know what you think. It is critical that they hear from all who may be impacted by the change.