Kyle Taft just entered the second grade at Brewster Pierce Memorial School in Huntington after a summer vacation jam-packed with camping, friends and LEGOs.
His mom, Margaret, says that she and her husband made sure Kyle was always learning something during the two-and-a-half-month break from school, whether it was how to read stories aloud or to feed the family’s cows.
Now she’s worried Kyle’s not-so-lazy days of summer might be numbered.
Last spring, a group of superintendents from school districts across the Champlain Valley proposed a new school calendar that would shorten summer vacation by two weeks and redistribute those days among three one- to two-week recesses, called intersessions, during the school year.
Known as Calendar 2.0, the new schedule could go into effect at public schools in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties as soon as the 2014-2015 academic year. Next month, the Champlain Valley Superintendents Association will be holding a series of public forums in Hinesburg, Burlington, Essex Junction and St. Albans to get feedback about the proposal. If reader reactions on their moderated blog are any indication, the superintendents are going to get an earful.
Since the end of April, impassioned posters have weighed in on air-conditioning, childcare, AP testing and the importance of quality relaxation time. Comments range from “As a parent of two, I’m very much in support of this new schedule” to “All in all, I think it just sounds like a nightmare.”
Science types are asking the really tough questions: “What is the available empirical, large-dataset, high-impact-factor journal research showing that this results in better outcomes? What is the … causal relationship between this calendar and a ‘better school climate?’”
Calendar 2.0 aims to solve the problem of “regression.” Research has shown that during the summer months, students forget about 6 percent of what they have learned during the previous academic year; the loss is even greater for students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Making exposure to school more regular is meant to deliver a more equitable educational experience.
Members of the superintendents association set the 175-day school calendar and, for the past several years, have been discussing ways to improve it, according to Elaine Pinckney, cochair of the regional association and superintendent for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union. Vermont’s most enthusiastic proponent of Calendar 2.0 in Vermont, the former Williston Central School principal has convinced her colleagues to give it a shot.
The idea originated in Vail, Ariz., a town of 10,000 residents southeast of Tucson. Joseph Sassone was the assistant superintendent of schools there in 2004, when Pinckney became Vermont’s deputy commissioner of education. Pinckney heard Sassone give a talk explaining what his district did to improve math and literacy test scores; between 2002 and 2006, Vail’s outcomes shot up above the statewide average.
Sassone attributed it to curriculum. But when Pinckney took a trip out to Vail to see for herself, she noted the academic year was broken up by periodic intersessions. Summer vacations were only six weeks long, she says, yet every student and educator she met praised the change in the school calendar.
“Imagine a day when a teacher, at any grade level, could look at a group of kids at the first day of a seven-week learning cycle and say, ‘At the end of these seven weeks, you’re going to know all these things, and here’s how you’re going to demonstrate how to do it, and if you can’t do it, we’re going to provide opportunities for you to,’” says Pinckney, explaining how such an approach makes it hard for students to fall behind.
“Doing the calendar in a way that separates the learning into equal chunks of time allows the brain to assimilate new things,” she says.
Even if students don’t need the extra help, Pinckney says those breaks in the learning would allow “kids to step back from the hundred-mile-per-hour routine” of school to pursue short-term internships and enrichment activities. Teachers, meanwhile, could use the time to pursue professional development.
“I don’t want to say that we have a system that is totally broken, but this would improve on the current one,” Pinckney says, noting that she’s advocating for a variation of the Arizona approach that includes intersessions. She concedes the research behind the proposal is imprecise and testing any new school calendar is tough because you can’t just plug kids into a study.
At least 900 Vermonters have clearly stated they’re not up for the experiment. A group called Vermont Save Our Summer Coalition has attracted that many supporters and more to its Facebook page and its stated mission of preserving the Champlain Valley’s current public school calendar.
Taft agrees with the group.
She challenges the quantification of regression. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen, because it does. But shortening your summer vacation by two weeks isn’t going to stop the regression. That’s like saying Johnny is fine for up to eight weeks, but he wakes up on the ninth week and, bam, he isn’t fine.”
Although Taft concedes that such a calendar might serve a purpose in overcrowded schools in warmer parts of the country, she has been reading extensively about the proposal and spouts a litany of reasons for opposing its application in Vermont.
Chiefly, she says that the superintendents haven’t provided any research — besides the Arizona anecdote — to show that it will improve test scores. On the logistical side, she questions how parents will find childcare during the intersessions and wonders whether organizations will actually go out of their way to create short-term programs for the students seeking internships.
The superintendents have said they’ll make sure all funding for programs during the intersessions comes from the existing after-school and summer programs they will be supplanting, but Taft and others doubt they’ll end up being cost neutral.
Although the school board chair at Brewster Pierce Memorial says his board hasn’t made any decision about Calendar 2.0, he does expect the intersessions will present programming opportunities to which “the marketplace will respond,” such as weeklong camps. “To say that we can’t do that is, I think, misreading innovation,” says Breck Knauft.
A teacher at JFK Elementary School in Winooski and the mother of two boys, Regan Charron questions whether all those breaks would stress some of the students who have to transition in and out of school. When an intersession falls in the middle of winter, she adds, it will be hard for some children — for example, those with parents who don’t drive or engage in cold-weather sports — to actually enjoy themselves.
Although Charron doesn’t rule out that some other schools may find the proposed calendar useful, she doesn’t believe it would be a good fit for Winooski.
How do the teacher unions feel about all of this? The Vermont chapter of the National Education Association union isn’t taking a position “because we think the discussion of the calendar, like many things, is best left to local school boards and educators,” says NEA communications director Darren Allen.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” says Bob Abbey, president of the Burlington Education Association. “I don’t know how much energy teachers have put into looking at this, because we’re much more concerned about getting the year started. We’ll have to see what [Superintendent] Jeanne Collins and our school board come up with.”
Alan Matson, chair of the Burlington School Board, says that he and his fellow board members haven’t come to any conclusions but are hoping the superintendents can provide more data to support the addition of a new calendar system.
“The chief question is still the education of the kids, but there are a lot of ancillary questions, so we’re just trying to think through the issues, making sure something won’t come up, like, kids can’t get summer jobs,” Matson says. He also notes that sports teams in other parts of the state wouldn’t stop playing while the Champlain Valley schools are recessed.
Pinckney recognizes that the public has not embraced her idea with open arms. The superintendents were not just expecting to hear a range of opinions, she says; they made the decision to hold the forums in the fall so that parents would be more likely to participate.
“The only decision we’ve made is that, from what we understand and know, this could make a positive difference in learning,” the superintendent says. “We’re holding a high-level conversation with the communities about not just the outcomes but also the structural components. We believe it would be unconscionable not to bring this conversation to the public.”
The Champlain Valley Superintendents Association will host four community forums to discuss the calendar proposed for the 2014-2015 school year: Wednesday, October 2, 6:30 p.m. at Essex High School Thursday, October 3, 6:30 p.m. at Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans Wednesday, October 9, 6:30 p.m. at Burlington High School Thursday, October 10, 6:30 p.m. at Champlain Valley Union High School, Hinesburg.