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Let's talk SCPS calendar controversy (and cute fluffy animals)

When I initially heard that SCPS was looking to change the SY 2018-19 calendar to a pre-labor day start, it seemed like a great idea to discuss. Personally, I grew up attending a school that started in August so that schedule just naturally makes the most sense to me, I'm a little biased. It's always seemed very strange to me that middle and high schoolers don't take their semester exams until after winter break, a concept that doesn't seem great for retention of knowledge. I was interested to hear the dialogue from the community regarding the subject but had no idea that there would be so much debate and controversy surrounding the discussion. Since the School Board will likely make the decision regarding the calendar at the next SB meeting, it seemed like a good idea to break down the issue. To keep everyone from getting too upset, gratuitous use of fluffy animals will be used. So, why make this change in the first place?

From an instruction standpoint, moving the start date makes a lot of sense. As mentioned above, by moving the date to August, students end the first semester and take those exams before winter break. This would allow for a "no homework holiday" during the break. In my experience, my kids never get much accomplished over winter break anyway but this can leave some kids in a bad way when exams come around after the break. The current schedule encourages last minute cramming after a long brain vacation that isn't conducive to fantastic exam results. Further, those of you with older kids will recall that 1st semester exams have often been cancelled due to multiple days of inclement weather. Ending the semester before winter break eliminates these issues.

The calendar change also allows for extra study time for high school students who have to take national exams, like AP tests. These testing dates occur on specific days for all students nationally. For example, this year's AP United States Government exam was administered on May 4th for all students who took it. Students who start the year before Labor Day and get those extra 2 weeks of instruction get more time to learn and review the material before these extremely important tests. If you are unfamiliar, high scores on these tests often translate into college credit for graduating seniors meaning potentially lower college tuition bills. Even if you have elementary school students now and don't think this applies to you, those kids will be in high school eventually and you may find you and your bank account appreciate the extra instruction time.

I have heard parents voice complaints against the change because they don't want their kids to have more time to study for SOL's. They feel that these state tests already take up too much real estate in the classroom and honestly, I agree. But if you don't like SOL's, this is not the place to plant your flag. SOL's are a reality and teachers must teach to the required material or face the consequences when the test results come in. The facts are that SOL testing for the most part happens in May, although I realize that is a sweeping generalization and there are outliers. That leaves 2 weeks of instructional time in June with very little for the teachers to do, since so many students are not required to take year-end exams if their class marks are at a high enough level (a C is high enough.) This often results in busy work and an endless array of PG movies shown to students to keep them occupied, not a good use of anyone's time.

A myriad of reasons to avoid this change have come up during the debate including concerns that teachers will lose income over the short summer that would result when the change would be implemented, the inability of families to takes vacations at the end of August when travel is cheaper and area pools not having lifeguards at the end of summer since college kids are typically already back to school at that time. Many have said that there is no hard data that points to student achievement improving based on an earlier start time. Spotsylvania's constant back and forth on the issue doesn't help the situation and don't forget the tried and true,"we've always done it this way" argument. However, I personally believe that this decision should be based on one thing and one thing only...whether it is a good change for the kids and their education. I think a strong case can be made to support that idea. However, I baulk at the notion that someone else's vacation schedule could take precedent over my children's ability to get the most out of their educational time at SCPS. How about some fluffy bunnies to diffuse any tension?

BTW first reported on the potential changes to the calendar back on April 7th. Dr. Benson brought up the topic at a Parent Advisory Committee meeting and the parents there were overwhelmingly positive on the idea. Dr. Benson made it clear that he wanted to get a lot of community input and more importantly, concrete data before making such a major change. The plan was to release a survey to get community feedback, one that emphasized the positives of the idea.

Soon after, the survey was released. If you didn't take the survey, suffice it to say that it definitely felt engineered to encourage a positive response towards the idea of a pre-labor day start. Questions were framed in a way that would naturally elicit a positive response similar to "Would you like a winter break with no homework?" The questions were leading but the calendar committee has been adamant they were not trying to direct answers. Regardless, an article in the Free Lance Star questioned the impartiality of the survey. In the article Garrisonville Rep Chris Connelly stated "It is very clear where they want this to go—it is difficult to believe this is impartial. This is the antithesis of what we try to do on School Board, which is to provide transparency.”

Unsurprisingly, it was Mr. Connelly who voiced the most concern regarding the calendar change process at the School Board meeting on last Tuesday. Over and over, Mr. Connelly expressed that the survey was "tainted' and because of that fact, the SB should "pump the brakes" and put off any further discussion regarding the change for another year. This is in spite of the fact that SCPS had planned to send out another survey, one that presents all of the facts by allowing parents and staff the opportunity to review two different calendar options. According to Dr. Benson at the last Parent Advisory Committee meeting, that survey would go out to SCPS parents via their registered email address, however, there was so much opposition to the idea of continuing this research it is unclear if SCPS still plans to send this new survey. BTW has reached out to SCPS for clarification. At the meeting, Mr. Connelly stated that he didn’t want to make a rushed decision in the eyes of constituents in the name of transparency.

Ironically, it was Mr. Connelly who suggested throwing out the calendar committee's report entirely and not allow the SB to listen to any of their findings, which doesn't seem very transparent at all. Chairwoman Hazard rightly pointed out that the calendar committee puts in a lot of work to determine the dates of the school year and that if they don't present their options, then the SB members would be spending their time trying to figure out a calendar themselves. However, Mr. Connelly continually suggested that the information from the committee be suppressed or dismissed before being presented. Why would he not want to even hear the committee's findings? Deep breaths, more puppies needed...

While I have had interactions with every other SB member, I have never had any interaction with Mr. Connelly so I can't speak to his motives. But Aquia SB Rep Irene Egan does know him and she expressed some thoughts about this topic on her FB page. She said "Could this call to "pump the breaks" be a political play intended to keep this issue as far away from local elections as possible?? This calendar issue is right up there with the likes of Redistricting, am I right? Bad time to be addressing??? I can't answer that. Listen to what the committee has to say!" Mr. Connelly is up for re-election this year so he could be manipulating the issue to his benefit OR he could just be genuinely concerned that the whole process looks way too shady. Regardless, it doesn't seem transparent to dismiss the committee's findings out of hand before anyone has even heard what they are. I would love to hear his perspective on this issue that he is clearly very passionate about.

Obviously, Ms. Egan is not a fan of pushing this decision off for another year. At Tuesday's meeting, she said she thought that the SB had already "pumped the breaks" on this issue for years and that there was no valid reason to put it off. She also expressed concern that the SB has the reputation of asking for community input and then promptly ignoring it. She apologized to the current calendar committee in advance if their hard work and input is ignored again.

Chairwoman Hazard stated that she thought it would be premature to make a decision but would like to see the work that's been done. She also made an excellent point that people are engaged over a short timeline and that delaying by months would not necessarily make the subject any clearer or easier to deal with down the line. After a lot of discussion, the general consensus seemed to be a move towards pushing the discussion to SY 2019-20. At least it appears that the SB will listen to the findings of the calendar committee, which is absolutely the right approach. But it is hard to imagine any findings, second survey or not, that could persuade some members of the SB to approve a pre-labor day calendar change.

As always, please let your School Board Representatives know what you think about the process and the potential calendar changes. Find all contact information HERE.