Proposed changes are explained

 

Editor’s note: Changing the academic calendar is inarguably one of the most significant issues facing Central Schools in recent years. In this Q & A exchange with Register Editor Pam Reinig, Superintendent/Elementary Principal Nick Trenkamp shares information on the proposed change.

Q. Who has been involved in the calendar discussion?

A. The calendar discussion actually began when I was interviewed for the Central superintendent/elementary principal position. During that time I shared my educational philosophies that align with a systemic change in public education.

This past fall, I introduced to our district leadership team the idea of changing the school calendar to better meet the needs of our students.  The team showed interest in this concept and we set up a Skype session with WACO CSD, who is in their first year of implementing an alternative calendar. After the Skype session and our discussion, I informed the district leadership team I would propose an alternative calendar to the calendar committee.

The calendar committee met a couple times this winter and drafted the proposed calendar, which is now being discussed in public forums. I asked the committee to consider only one thing when drafting a calendar, and that was student academic success. This made for tough conversation as we all have our own personal preferences, yet at the end of the day we kept coming back to what is best for our students.  

Once the calendar committee finished the draft I met with the student council, 6-12 student body, PreK-12 teachers, and PreK-12 associates. All groups shared their ideas and thoughts with me, and while not 100% supportive I do believe the majority of each of these groups supports the change.  I have also held three public forums, started a proposed balanced calendar post on my blog, and have taken many phone calls and responded to many emails. This has been a great opportunity to receive public feedback as well as show our community that Central is willing and able to make some systemic changes to possibly better meet the needs of our students.

Q. Why this particular approach instead of another model?

A. The district leadership team and calendar committee explored a variety of models.  I believe we chose this model as it would most closely resemble the traditional calendar, while enabling us to meet some of our academic goals.  We didn’t feel our community was ready for a year-round calendar.  We also didn’t feel our staff would be ready to implement a 4+1 calendar.

Q. What two or three things would a balanced calendar address?

A. I am not certain a balanced calendar, which still has a 7-week or more summer vacation, will completely address our summer regression issue.  I feel the summer vacation needs to be decreased to five weeks or less to really have an impact on summer regression. However, we will certainly measure summer regression in response to a shortened summer break. A balanced calendar also addresses a couple of our other needs.

1) Breaks are built in when breaks are needed. If you talk to any educator, the time after Christmas vacation to Easter break can be brutal. The weather is often not good, and the climate of the building just changes. A balanced calendar would give everyone a break during this time.  I believe by having a break during this period, it will address some of our concerns with behavior, absenteeism, and health. I also strongly believe it will improve the climate of our building.

2) Enrichment opportunities can be implemented into a balanced calendar.  A traditional calendar approach assumes everyone learns at the same time and same pace,  which is simply untrue.  Most of the public seems to be in favor of the enrichment days and the opportunities they can bring our children.  Some have said we should add enrichment days to the traditional calendar.  Unfortunately, our traditional calendar has breaks built around holidays, so we would not be able to “steal” those days for enrichment.  The only way to add enrichment opportunities is to take the days away from summer break.

3) Equitable quarters and semesters. Currently our traditional calendar cheats students out of six days of learning if they take a class in the first semester that is also offered in the second semester. This is even before snow days, which only make the equity problem worse. Under our balanced calendar proposal we would have a break with built-in snow days after each 45-day quarter. For example, if a snow day happens during the second quarter, we will not make that up at the end of the fourth quarter but instead make it up at the end of the second quarter.

Q. What are the major advantages/disadvantages of a balanced calendar?

A. I stated the major advantages above. Some other advantages include; teachers with more break time throughout the year to evaluate and implement education initiatives, instead of one summer break; time for students to focus on activities they are involved in without worrying about school work; our hourly employees would be paid more evenly throughout the year; student wellness and safety.

Some possible disadvantages include; activities may be affected if school goes into June; the cost of transportation for enrichment days; the need for an activity bus when school is not in session; and the fear of change.

Q. How have you shared information?

A. Information has been shared through public forums, social media, school reach, district website, and local news agencies.

Q. What have you learned from the forum and public meetings?

Being the “new person” I have learned Central represents an amazing group of communities who highly value education.  Like me, I have learned everyone wants Central to be a viable school district for a long time.  Parents, students, and community members have offered valuable feedback that I believe will lead to some revisions to the calendar currently being proposed.

I do believe the parents who put their children’s education as their number one priority are in favor of the proposed changes.  Most of the comments against the balanced calendar stem from individual preference and are not an education first standpoint.  Examples include; our family goes to the pool in June; my schedule won’t be the same as my spouse/children; summer employment; etc.  I am not saying these are not valid concerns but remember we are in the business of educating students.  As the leader of Central, I feel 100% of my students need a quality education if they are going to be successful in life.  The data of students that do not receive a good education is very alarming for our communities, state, and nation.

Q. What other communities are looking at calendar changes?

A. I honestly haven’t followed what other districts are doing a whole lot as I have been focused on Central’s student data and addressing our own concerns.  I do believe the reason a bill was passed to allow districts to count hours or days, was to give districts more flexibility with developing innovative calendars.  The traditional school calendar is 150-years-old and the countries outperforming the United States have much different school calendars.  I have already shared WACO CSD is currently in their first year of the 4+1 calendar, and I have heard that East Sac County will be doing something similar next year.  I know Spirit Lake & Newell-Fonda offer J-terms.  Currently many of our larger districts in Iowa offer a year-round calendar in their elementary schools.  Storm Lake is proposing this change district-wide.  Outside of Iowa, a balanced calendar is common in states like Indiana, Florida, and Hawaii. Because districts are now allowed to count hours of instruction starting in the 2014/15 school year, I believe you will hear more and more about schools moving away from the traditional calendar.

Q. Now that the public forums are finished, what is the process?

A. The school board will be hosting a work session to discuss the public feedback we have received.  At that time we will consider putting together a survey to collect more information if needed.  If we feel we have enough information, the school board could choose to revise the calendar based on that information.  Once the calendar has been revised, I will once again go out and promote it in our community.  It is my hope that we can host a public hearing before the March school board meeting.  After the public hearing, the school board would need to vote on whether or not to approve a new district calendar. We have until April to get this completed.

Q. If the board approves the calendar, how soon would it go into affect?

A. My proposal would be for it to go into affect in the 2014/15 school year.

Q. How can the district afford the costs associated with the proposed calendar?

A. The Central school board has made many tough decisions in the previous years and due to those decisions Central is financially strong. Whether a balanced calendar gets passed or not, it is great our conversations have moved from financial to academic.

Due to our building being opened year-round currently, my business manager and I feel the only real increase of costs comes from extended transportation.  Currently, our transportation costs the school district $2,000 per school day, so any added enrichment days would add that amount to our expenditures.  Central can afford this and I would argue our tax dollars should be spent on student learning.

Q. If Central goes forward with the balanced calendar, how long until we can determine the difference the calendar has made? What if you don’t see the results you are expecting?

A. We will be able to monitor our behavior and absentee data immediately.  If we decrease the summer break, it will take us a minimum of two years until we can see the affect that will have on summer retention data.

One thing I hope our community is learning about me, I am not one to stay doing the same thing over and over again, yet expect different results.  As with any change in education, we need to closely monitor it and tweak it as needed.  In some cases, we may need to totally throw it out and start over (my argument for the calendar change).  Look at any successful business that has lasted over time, they are not doing things the same as when they first started. We are no different in education. We must change to meet the needs of our students if we are ever going to attain the success expected of us.

Q. Anything else to add?

I want to thank the community for their support. In some districts this conversation may not have even been possible. I am impressed with the forward thinking of our staff, school board, and community and I am excited Central is moving in a forward direction.

To those thinking about open enrollment I would ask you to reconsider and give this new direction a chance.  Ask yourself, “Do you really want to open enroll your kids out of a school district that is trying better to meet the needs of all students?”  Central’s assessment data shows one out of every four students below proficiency. This is not acceptable, we can and will do better, but we will have to change the “system” in order to do so.

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