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3 Common Sense Ways to Fix our School Calendars

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It’s snowing pretty hard in Chicago this morning. I’m sure that parents traumatized by all of the weather-related closings, combined with all of the planned school holidays in January through March, let out a collective sigh of relief that schools remained open. Somehow, buses ran (slowly), teachers made it to school, and parents were able to go to work.

I was watching Morning Joe in late February, and almost fell off of my exercise bike when they happily announced that Mayor De Blasio of New York City would be closing schools two days next year for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. Joe Scarborough, who is hardly a proponent of political correctness, thought this was a great idea. He and Willie Geist went on about how great it was to be off for Jewish holidays as well. Obviously, having no school on Christian holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday has been a given for a long time. 

At the end of this kumbaya moment, Mika Brzezinski asked what about kids losing two more days of school. The exact timing of the Muslim holy days changes year to year because they are based on a lunar calendar. (In the coming school year, Eid al-Adha falls on September 24, and in 2016, Eid al-Fitr falls during the summer.) Then everyone chuckled about kids having to be in school until July. 

Well, I’m not laughing. Our school calendars are ridiculous, and taking more days off to make a political statement demonstrates how the needs of children always seem to come last in this equation. What everyone misses here is that inconsistent calendars, with many weeks less than five days long, are unfair to children who need to learn and parents who need to work. 

In my community, schools were closed January 7, February 9, and 19 for cold and February 1 for snow. In addition, the calendar already planned for no school January 19 for MLK Day, February 13 for a comp day for teachers for having “spring” parent-teacher conferences that week, and February 16 for Presidents’ Day. The calendar also called for taking off Pulaski Day on March 2 (Google if you need to know), but that became a make up day for one of the days lost to cold-weather closings.  In addition, January 14, February 4, and March 11 were half-days set aside for “school improvement” (teacher in-service).  

Yes, I believe we should respect Muslim holidays as much as Jewish or Christian ones. Children observing their religious holidays should be excused from school. They should also be encouraged to share their customs and traditions with one another so they can learn to understand and appreciate the diversity of our country. But I also believe public schools should be open on these days.

In Illinois, the minimum requirement is 176 school attendance days. In my community, there are seven half-days set aside for teacher development. The state counts those as attendance days, but I see them as 3.5 more non-attendance days, so the actual number required by Illinois for my grandkids’ schools is 172.5.

Let’s try a little math. Assume kids go to school 5 days per week, the last week of August through first week of June.  That’s 40 weeks. Subtract two weeks for winter and spring vacations, and three days for a Thanksgiving break (I’m not a total Grinch). We end up with 187 potential attendance days.  But the calendar seems to short the kids 12.5 days.

Where did the rest of them go? 

  • Religious Holidays beyond Christmas and Easter = 3 – (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Good Friday)
  • Random Non-Attendance Day = 1 (because school opens on a Tuesday)
  • Compensation Days off for parent-teacher conference weeks – 2 
  • Federal and State holidays – 6 
  • School improvement Days (teacher in-service) – 3.5 (Seven Wednesday afternoons)

Looking at it another way, out of 38 attendance weeks in the school year, only half (19) are 5-day weeks. And this does not factor in weather-related school closings, which fall in January through March when there are only five full weeks of school to begin with.

So here are three common sense suggestions to ensure children’s educational needs are met and to provide the continuity they need. I must preface them by stating that I am a former teacher, many of my friends and relatives are teachers, and I believe in teachers’ unions and belonged to one myself. I was also a preschool administrator for many years and appreciate how difficult it is to decide about closing school. During this time, I created countless school calendars. Finally, I served many years on boards responsible for determining educational policies. So yes, I empathize with the perspectives of all the adults involved.  

  1. Keep school open for federal and state holidays. This includes going to school on MLK Day, Presidents’ Day, Columbus Day, etc. It would be better to honor these people by dedicating the day to learning about them in school. What if we also kept school open for Veterans’ Day in November and invited some actual veterans to come in that day to talk to the kids? 
  2. Figure out a better way to provide educators with the required hours of teacher development and training. Having been an early childhood director for many years, I know staff in-service is very important. But disrupting the school calendar for teacher training is not the solution. If the goal is to have 20+ hours of teacher training, how about using 3 full days to do this? These days could be prior to the opening of school in the fall and/or after it closes in June. Alternatively, teachers could make their own arrangements for continuing education that meets their needs and substitutes could be hired to enable this.
  3. Finally, even though I’m Jewish, I’m okay with keeping school open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most kids don’t need the disruption at the start of school in September. Those who observe these holidays should be given excused absences. The same goes for any other religious holidays. Just for fun, why not schedule spring break to include Good Friday and Easter? Of course, I am talking about public schools here.

I can hear the objections to these suggestions already. Teachers expect these days off and use them for appointments and vacations. School districts are already cash strapped and will have to pay teachers more if days are added. Of course, I have a couple of answers:

  • Teachers receive an allotment of paid personal days that can be used for this purpose.
  • School districts could save a bundle by walking away from the high stakes testing nonsense.

To effect positive change on behalf of the children may call for the adults in the room to think differently. It will call for school boards and superintendents to make unpopular choices and for teachers’ unions to make unpopular concessions. But humor me a bit and try thinking outside of the box. Our school year calendar makes no sense, especially in wintry climates. I’m not even addressing the concept of ditching our huge and antiquated summer break. I know our schools would require air-conditioning and our teachers would have to be open to a year-round calendar. And I know there is not enough money to fund what we have, let alone adding more costs.  

But I have to advocate for our children, who end up the biggest losers here. They are not learning and their parents are scrambling to make child care arrangements or are forced to leave them home alone. Those that rely on school for breakfast and lunch are hungry. Especially for the most vulnerable kids, children with special needs and children living in poverty, the lack of continuity in a school calendar with so many disruptions is a huge deal. For their sake, could we strive to have as many 5-day weeks of attendance as possible? 

 

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Laurie has been an early childhood administrator, advocate for children and families, teacher, and community leader for over 30 years. Her passions, aside from her 8 grandchildren, are education (with a focus on including children with special needs), empowering parents and teachers, and creating caring and just school communities. She also blogs for ChicagoNow, Huffington Post and AlterNet. Her work has also been featured in The Washington Post and The Forward. In her pre-blogging life, she was founding director of Warren W. Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois, an innovative developmental early childhood program that includes and celebrates all children.

Laurie's personal experiences as a parent, grandparent, and family member of children with special needs, as well as her years as an educator, school administrator, and community volunteer, have made her an advocate for the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves. She writes to empower parents and educators to make their voices heard. She writes to restore developmentally appropriate practices to education. She writes to seek justice for parents and children crushed under the heel of the educational-industrial complex. Laurie's dream is to create caring and inclusive school communities in which all children can learn and thrive outside the box.

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Guest Saturday, 10 December 2016