Archive for the ‘School Year Calendar’ Category

School days lost to winter storms and other calamities is back on the public agenda, particularly in Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States. It broke into the open only when the numbers of lost days were approaching two full weeks of school. After shrugging off the issue for years, a couple of Canadian Ministers of Education suddenly went into a panicky, reactive mode. All of a sudden, recovering “lost learning time” became a priority.

SchoolClosureLogoCCRSBA succession of severe snow and ice storms in late February 2015 finally spurred that intervention.  After New Brunswick’s Education Minister  Serge Rousselle  announced he was looking at adding “make-up” days, his Nova Scotia counterpart, Karen Casey, shocked everyone by sounding a public alarm bell.  In a media scrum, Casey drew what sounded like “a line in the ice” and openly mused about sending students and teachers to school on Saturdays and during March break to make up for lost days. It caused such a furor that Premier Stephen McNeil was forced to intervene, assuring worried parents that the province was not going to commandeer their upcoming holidays.

Since a Nova Scotia Snow Days report by Dr. Jim Gunn in November 2009, five years ago, many concerned parents and citizens were asking –what’s really changed? Aside from minor policy adjustments and clearer communications, very little had happened to address the fundamental issue – the erosion of learning time and its impact on both student engagement and achievement.

Compared to Nova Scotia and the neighbouring Maritime provinces, American state governments and school districts have done much better. Transforming School Snow Days into E-Learning Days opened the door to what are known as “Blizzard Bags.” With a storm approaching, teachers are prepared with class-based homework assignments, inserted in special bags, to ensure continuity in teaching and learning.

Last winter, one of the most severe ever, Nova Scotia school boards cancelled between 5 and 15 full days, the highest numbers since 2008-09. So far this season, the number of “lost days” totals from 5 in Halifax to 11 in Cape Breton, with a month of winter still ahead of us.

Connecting the dots leads to one inescapable conclusion: Students in Nova Scotia, as well as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, would be doing better if they actually spent more time in school and were expected to complete work now being “written-off” in our public schools. Cancelling whole school days for real or threatened severe weather, then allowing between 12 and 16 days to be consumed by “Teacher Days” for professional activities was only compounding the student performance challenges.

No school system anywhere can be competitive when students are only in school for 165 to 175 of the scheduled 180 to 182 instructional days. Over the past five years, students outside of Halifax have actually missed 40 to 55 full days of school as a direct result of storm closures, double that of those in the HRSB, putting them at a real disadvantage compared to city kids.  The pattern was similar in both New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Raising such critical matters is no longer about finding fault, but rather about appealing for constructive policy changes to alleviate or minimize student learning loss in relation to other provinces and states. If “E-Learning Days” cannot be implemented because of the uneven state of Internet and home computer access, simply shrugging it off is no longer tenable.

The American ‘Snow-Belt’ states are way ahead of Maritimers in tackling the problem of repeated school day cancellations. Confronted with the problem, good old “Yankee ingenuity” sprouted up in Ohio, Minnesota and New Hampshire. Creative solutions are now appearing in the Greater Boston area, where school superintendents have stepped up to meet the challenge.

The state of Ohio was first out of the gate. Five school days a year were designated “Calamity Days” to accommodate storms, power outages, tornadoes, and local events, including fires, roof leaks, and boiler problems. Lost days, above 3 days, then later 5, were re-claimed by alternative means, including E-Days, replacing PD days or adding ‘make-up’ days at the end of term.

E-Learning Days emerged over the past five years as a popular alternative, employed in some 200 Ohio schools, mostly in rural and remote school districts. Given the choice between providing E-Learning activities during Snow Days and giving up PD or holiday time, teachers warmed to the concept and it was incorporated into the school’s curricular program.

The wintry blast of 2014 wreaked havoc in the state school system and ultimately claimed the Calamity Days model. When school day cancellations exceeded nine days, Ohio schools were unable to guarantee the mandated minimum of 180 days without pushing the school year into the final exam period. In September 2014, Ohio shifted from mandating school days to setting minimum annual hours of instruction, specifying 910 hours of instruction for K-6 and 1,001 hours for 7-12, and permitting more flexibility in implementing replacement days.

BlizzardBagsOhio’s Calamity Days were ahead of the curve and states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine have taken different approaches. In the Greater Boston area, Burlington City Schools, are now leading the way – providing students with Blizzard Bags and the option of completing work online or in traditional fashion.

Building and developing an effective Snow Days Alternative program is not easy, but Burlington Public Schools are proving that it can be done. Assistant Superintendent Patrick M. Larkin was “underwhelmed” with Blizzard Bags from a cross-section of Ohio schools that were stuffed with worksheets and rather mundane homework assignments. Working with teachers, Larkin has ensured that Blizzard Bags are now being filled with more challenging assignments requiring independent thinking, collaboration, digital learning, peer feedback and teacher guidance.

Whether schools are open or not, student learning should not be suspended for days on end. Let’s at least bring back those homework pouches. Giving them a fancy name like “Blizzard Bag” might even help schools to get started on the task of weaning today’s kids off Netflix and video games

What’s standing in the way of re-claiming lost School Snow Days?  Should provincial and state education authorities establish a minimum number of days when students will actually be in the classroom?  If so, what type of  a school calendar and schedule would be best for conserving and protecting instructional time? Where have school districts actually succeeded in limiting the erosion of student learning time?

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On Thursday August 2, hundreds of Calgary Catholic school students cut short their carefree summer vacation and headed back for the first day of class. While most students could look forward to a month more of summer holidays, students and teachers at Monsignor Neville Anderson School in Sandstone, AB, returned to school during one of the most glorious Calgary summers in recent memory. Yet a feature story in the Calgary Herald (August 1, 2012) painted a very positive picture, carrying the message that teachers found their “pupils” returning early far “more eager” than those on traditional September to June school calendars.  http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/calgary/Summer+ends+early+Calgary+Catholic+year+round+students/7026505/story.html

The glowing endorsement of Year Round Schools running on the so-called Modified School Year (MSY) Calendar flew in the face of most of the accumulating evidence.  Extending the School Year, by simply spreading out the holidays, once considered a means to improve student performance and to reduce classroom overcrowding, has produced mixed results since the advent of the MSY concept in the early 1990s.   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/debate-over-yearround-ver_n_1668482.html

Over the past two decades, only about 100 public schools across all of Canada have adopted and implemented the Modified School Year Calendar, reducing the length of the 9-week summer break and spreading the 180 to 185  instructional days  more evenly throughout the year.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/does-year-round-schooling-make-the-grade/article4261901/  The first of those was the Calgary Board of Education’s Terry Fox Public School in Falconridge, initiated in 1995.  Today the original pilot school still runs on a modified calendar, with students due to return in mid-August on a 45 days on, 15 day break schedule. In the Toronto region, Roberta Bondar Public School, Peel Region District Board, Brampton, enjoys similar notoriety. South of the border, some school districts that adopted the extended schedule, like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, have actually turned back to traditional school calendars.

Modified School Year supporters claim that extending the school year directly addresses what is termed “summer learning loss.”  Reducing the summer holidays from 9-weeks to 5-weeks or less, they believe prevents students from falling behind academically and keeps troubled kids off the streets. Some of the more  reliable U.S. research has also shown that students in high-needs districts and students with special needs tend to do better in schools with extended calendars.

Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, remains unconvinced.  Appearing recently on Fox-TV News with Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College, he insisted that extending the school year was “not for everyone” and without significant improvements in teaching, such a move might make little difference for student learning. “We want to extend the school year for kids for whom it would benefit them and for kids who are attending schools where we’re confident the time’s going be used well and it’s going to be used effectively.” http://video.foxnews.com/v/1775447053001/

A strong case can be made to offer the choice of a Modified School Year schedule, particularly if it is targeted for children and families in lower socio-economic communities  Less educated, low income families, according to Hess,  are more likely to experience summer learning loss, but mandating a longer calendar for all students will not prove beneficial. “Even when children start school at age six in more or less the same space, kids from low income or less educated families are a few years behind by the time they get to high school,” Hess said. “I think we owe it to those kids to do something about it.”

Expanding actual teaching time may well make a difference. The U.S. National Center on Time and Learning reports that more than 170 schools around the United States have extended their school year to more than 190 days, including at least two schools in the state of Missouri. Both schools in Missouri and the majority of schools across the United States that are opting for longer days or longer years are charter schools.
The renowned national charter network Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) lists “more time” as one of their strategies for delivering a high-quality education to their students. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVi07IxmVkg  Students at KIPP Inspire Academy in Saint Louis attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every other Saturday. Additionally, students are required to attend summer school. Their efforts to improve education outcomes for disadvantaged students are now attracting widespread attention and even imitations, like the Citizen Schools.  Ardent supporters of KIPP schools will tell you that it’s as much about what is actually taught in school as it is the length of the school year.
Extending the School Year is not popular with students and parents for lots of reasons and a sound case has to be made that there will be real gains in terms of student learning and performance.  Why is the Modified School Year producing such mixed results?  Will simply dividing-up the year differently make much of a difference?  What really explains the remarkable success of the KIPP schools in the United States?  What’s stopping Canadian provinces and school boards from extending learning time and building more flexibility into the school day and annual schedule?

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With the “Back to School” ads appearing, many parents of school age children are secretly counting down the days and so are a surprising number of studious and totally bored kids. In the midst of that nine-week gap in K-12 schooling, politicians and the public could be forgiven for raising a few serious questions: Could students do with fewer holidays? Do they really need all that time off? And what’s the impact of lengthy gaps and the relatively short school year on student learning and achievement?

The dog days of mid-summer can be a challenge for house-bound families without ready access to cottages, camps, and recreational programs. Time hangs heavy for most kids when the heat rises, friends are away, and even those X-Box video games become monotonous. For the in-betweens, young teens ages 12 to 16, hanging out at the mall, around the empty schoolyard, or behind the railway tracks can be tiresome. Summer jobs today are hard to come-by and, late in the summer, American cities and towns report increased rates of juvenile crime as well as more risk-taking behaviours. http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/459031

Expanding learning time is now a high profile public issue in the United States, where President Barack Obama has challenged educators to “rethink the school calendar” and called for a longer school year. On the NBC Today Show in September 2010, he based his case on the fact that in high performing school systems like Korea kids go to school a month longer each year. Indeed, eight of 31 countries in the OECD now have school years of 195 days or more. http://www.eduinreview.com/blog/2010/09/obama-continues-to-support-year-round-school-for-americans-video/

A Toronto Globe and Mail “Time to Lead” series on the School Calendar in June 2011 put the issue squarely on the Canadian public agenda, but with a different twist. While recognizing that lengthening the school year might have an impact, lead reporter Tralee Pearce focused almost exclusively on the case –for and against—a lengthy summer break. Tampering with the conventional calendar of 185 six-and-a-half hour days was considered verboten. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/does-year-round-schooling-make-the-grade/article2057863/

Time matters in public education, it seems, except when it comes to the length of school holidays and the duration of the instructional day. Studies by the OECD have established a clear link between the amount of learning time and student performance on international tests. OECD’s Cassandra Davis of “Education Today” made this prediction: “With policymakers focusing on staying internationally competitive through improving education, school may be out for a shorter summer in the future.” https://community.oecd.org/community/educationtoday/blog/2010/08/03/school-s-still-out-for-summer

Why is the Canadian debate so narrowly circumscribed? It comes down to this: In the Canadian system, teachers’ union contracts, strictly limit both the school year and the duration of the teaching day. That tends to short circuit the discussion and to doom all proposals for so-called “year round schools” to failure and to suffocate any discussion of a longer school day.

The phenomenon of “summer learning loss” is now a vitally-important issue for American education authorities, especially in the wake of the U.S. dismal results on the 2009 PISA tests. In April of 2011, a TIME Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress aimed at providing grants to states adding at least 300 hours to the school year in low performing schools. A Summer 2011 study by the National Center on Time and Learning demonstrates that many states are already heeding the President’s call for a longer school year by cutting back on holiday time. http://www.timeandlearning.org/

Previous initiatives since the early 1990s to introduce “Modified School Year” (MSY) plans in Canada have met with limited success. Most such initiatives hold fast to the conventional 180 day minimum model and simply break the year up in a more symmetrical fashion. After two decades, the Calgary School Board has had some success, but fewer than 100 Canadian schools have adopted the unfairly labelled “year-round-school” model. http://www.cbe.ab.ca/calendars/default.asp
Research supporting the move to a MSY is rather inconclusive. One oft cited study by Eileen C. Winter (2005) focused solely on a small sample of Ontario early years teachers and reaffirmed previous assumptions about “learning loss,” particularly among at-risk students. Some modest gains were reported in student attendance and attitudes, but not enough to justify a wholesale change in most communities. http://www.mpsd.ca/pdfs/A_Modified_School_Year.pdf
Expanding learning time by adding school days or hours to the instructional day would have much more benefit. The PISA test results support the OECD’s contention that lengthening the school year can produce measurable results in student achievement.

American public charter schools, like those sponsored by the KIPP Foundation and the Citizen Schools, provide further evidence. Extending the school year and offering required extended day activities are, according to the NCTL, “fundamentally changing the trajectory of students’ lives in high poverty communities.” http://www.timeandlearning.org/learningtimeinamerica/learningtimeinamerica.html

Tinkering with the summer holiday schedule may provide some solace for families without the means to keep kids fully occupied during the summer. Reducing the summer break from nine to six weeks would be a start, but only by significantly expanding learning time will we be able to keep pace with the leading countries in the educational world. It’s time to revamp teacher contracts and remove what the 1994 NTL Commission described as “the shackles of time” from our schools.

What’s stopping us from rethinking the School Calendar in most of Canada’s provinces? Why have ambitious moves to Modified School Year plans mostly fizzled since the early 1990s? Would simply reapportioning the holiday periods have much of an impact on student learning? Can we remain competitive with the world’s educational leaders without expanding our actual classroom learning time?

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