Plan could mean shorter summers, more learning opportunities

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The Knox County Schools administration wants to look into shifting the system's traditional school calendar to a "balanced" one – a proposal that would shorten summer breaks, but provide more learning opportunities for students, officials say.

However, such a move – if done – is still a long ways off and would need buy-in from the public and the Board of Education.

"We'll have to have a lot more community discussion and dialogue before we move forward with this concept," said Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre. "We absolutely want to make sure we have a great deal of public dialogue and feedback and discourse on this idea."

The proposal is a small part of the administration's 49-page "Strategic Plan – Excellence for Every Child" that the school board approved on first reading earlier this month and will take up again in August. The plan is filled mostly with a series of goals and aspirations, and school leaders say it's the blueprint they want to use to better educate students and improve the overall system during the next five years.

One of the ways to do that, the plan notes, is to avoid "the trap of passively agreeing to 'do school as it has always been done,'" and, instead, to challenge "traditional assumptions and conventional wisdom so we can craft learning environments that prioritize improving student achievement."

The plan suggests examining how the current "school schedule and the academic calendar may be used to maximize" student learning.

"As we think about the importance of making sure every one of our students is successful in today's world and tomorrow's world, it makes sense for us to organize our school day and our school year and the work that we do around the individual learning needs of our kids, and that's ultimately what the balanced calendar does," McIntyre said.

Still, there's a lot that has to happen before anything changes.

First, the school board has to approve the overall strategic plan during its Aug. 6 voting meeting.

Then, the administration has to further research the concept and hold a series of public meetings for more input.

Finally, the BOE would have to approve the balanced calendar.

Also, since the administration has set the schedules for this upcoming year, which starts in August, and for the following one, it wouldn't implement any changes until the 2016-17 school year at the earliest.

PROS, CONS

A number of other school systems, including Alcoa, Nashville and Wilson County, operate under the balanced calendar.

And the Oak Ridge School Board recently approved one for its 2015-16 school year.

"Like anything that you do that is different, it is going to take some adjustment," said Keys Fillauer, the school board's president and a retired teacher. "It will take some adjustment on the community's part (and) it will take some adjustment on the school's part."

Fillauer said the move, which cuts the summer break down from eight weeks to six, balances grading periods more equally throughout the school year.

He said the school year will start a little earlier and end a littler later, but spring, winter and fall breaks are lengthened from one week to two.

He added that one of those weeks is technically a vacation period and the other "we can use for remediation for students who need additional help in classes."

"We all know as you go on, you get a little tired," Fillauer said. "Students get tired, teachers get tired. So one of the things I think this will do is to give that period where batteries can be charged and a period where students can take an opportunity to improve their academic standing."

Others, however, say the plan can create an adverse ripple effect.

Some parents often struggle to find child care during the non-summer breaks, and family vacations get interrupted.

Additionally, businesses and organizations that employ high school students can end up scrambling for help during the summer when the students would typically work more hours.

Some local parks and recreation departments also are forced to make changes.

For example, Joe Huff, director for the Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks and Recreation Department, said public swimming pools there close in early August. Before the school systems switched to a balanced calendar, they kept them open through Labor Day.

"Often times, it's your hottest month of the year, so it is a little challenging because we have a much shorter pool season than we used to have," he said. "When you are relying on about 80 or 90 percent of your work force being high school students, once school starts it's really hard to keep it open."

Huff added that "there is some financial" loss to closing early, and said some athletic programs are impacted since parents take their children on vacation during the longer fall breaks rather than enroll them in sports.

LOOKING BACK, AHEAD

McIntyre on Wednesday didn't delve too deep into details, but said one method to setting the calendar is to schedule school for nine weeks followed by three weeks of "intersessions," where one week is a traditional vacation and the other two provide "intervention for kids who are struggling" and "enrichment for all our students."

For example, he said, the local symphony might meet with classes or a scientist could deliver a presentation on robotics.

"You're able to minimize any summer learning loss," he said. "And I think what it means is we have opportunities to really extend learning for students in ways that are meaningful to them (and) in ways that are engaging to them, and ways that we are able to intervene with kids in real time if they're struggling, and also just to offer more opportunities overall for our students."

McIntyre said he didn't expect the calendar to add additional days to the schedule, since summer vacations more than likely would get reduced to about six weeks. Currently, Knox County students are in school 177 "extended" days a year, meaning they attend for 30 minutes longer than the state requires.

The superintendent said the shift could cost more money, but didn't know how much.

In 2011, the school system talked about switching only Fulton and Austin-East high schools to a balanced calendar, but officials eventually set aside the discussions. At the time, some school board members were concerned that doing it at only two high schools would become problematic for parents with children in both high school and at lower grade levels on the traditional schedule.

Under the proposal at the time, the school system would cut its summer break in half, down to 30 days. The remaining days would be scattered into smaller breaks throughout the year, including extra weeks off for traditional spring and winter breaks, as well as a two week fall break.

McIntyre said a "design process" would eventually determine the makeup of any future proposed calendar. He said it would be determined "by what our priorities and our choices are as a community."

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