Learning Retention Drives the 'Balanced Calendar' Discussion at Saline Area Schools

 05/05/2016 - 01:23

Administrators and board trustees from Saline Area Schools addressed for the first time last week the notion of potentially adopting a year-round academic calendar, setting the table for a community discussion with passionate advocates on both sides.

Even though the technical terminology for year-round school is having a “balanced calendar,” feelings toward the idea are anything but level.

The Facebook dialogue following The Post’s article about last Tuesday’s meeting is representative of the strong polarity of opinions.

Proponents as well as those against the idea both mentioned scheduling in their arguments. 

Melissa Marowelli lauded the idea.

“I would consider pulling my kids from our charter school and putting them back in Saline if they went to a balanced calendar,” she said. “I want my kids to be able to experience vacations at other times of the year, and the need for the agriculturally-driven calendar is no longer needed.”
Being an educator herself, Wendy Williams expressed concerns about a new and rather large financial burden.

“As a teacher at a school with a traditional calendar, what would I do with my kids while they are on their breaks?” she asked. “Assuming the district offers care during these breaks, that’s a huge childcare expense for our family, especially because my childcare budget is now $0.”

Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Steve Laatsch said he knows this is a multifaceted issue.

“You have to have community support, which would be a big one,” he said. “That would have to be at the forefront of it.”

With so much disparity in perspective on the issue, the question becomes why district officials have chosen to consider a balanced calendar at this point in time.

Board President Paul Hynek alluded to the fact that the five additional school days mandated to begin this year by the state legislature were at least partially the catalyst for considering the switch.

Superintendent Scot Graden said that there are several others prominent factors at play as well.

“It’s fair to say there’s a movement toward looking at balanced calendars, and some districts are moving toward a balanced calendar for a variety of reasons,” he said. “In Colorado, one of the people I’ve talked to there initially moved to a balanced calendar as a function of extreme growth and they needed some flexibility in terms of facility use.”

Another perceived benefit is the positive educational impact on children who usually suffer most from what school officials call “summer slide.”

“Other areas, particularly areas I’ve seen that are significantly at-risk or have an at-risk population, have done it because they really want to address the learning loss or the summer retention issue,” Graden said, admitting this is less of a problem in Saline. “This idea that there is a great deal of variety across the country I think is indicative of wanting a schedule that meets the needs of your community and is designed around students, not necessarily designed around society.”

The current school schedule is simply a matter of well-rehearsed tradition, according to Graden.

“It’s certainly a hold-over from a different era,” he said. “It’s just very antiquated, the way we do it. We wouldn’t set it up this way now if we were to start over.”

Graden said balanced calendars are already in place, or currently being implemented, in Michigan also.

“It’s important to note that Jackson County went through a process recently, Saginaw County’s gone through a process, Charlotte (also),” he said. “There are Michigan districts, and it’s fair to say more than ever, that are considering or moving toward it.”

Since extracurricular activities such as sports and other competitive groups would be more impacted in terms of scheduling, Graden said a potential scenario could be a balanced calendar for secondary students, and then reverting back to a traditional calendar beyond fifth grade.

Holmes Elementary School in Ypsilanti adopted a balanced calendar two years ago while the rest of the district remained on a traditional schedule.

Principal Seth Petty said the data he is seeing shows there has been positive academic change at his school because of the move.

“We have definitely have seen some success. The parents really enjoy it,” he said. “Our superintendent, Dr. Edmondson, is a really strong proponent of doing things that make sense. He is a data-driven superintendent and we continue to analyze the growth that we are able to achieve.”

Some of the more challenging aspects of the new schedule have come in articulating that a balanced calendar contains no additional school days, and working out scheduling kinks as they arise.

“Explaining how that process works is something we’ve worked on this year, as well as aligning our dates a lot better going forward to eliminate the potential issues,” Petty said.

The change at Holmes was almost exclusively geared toward learning retention.

“The goal is really to look at how you can reduce learning loss over the summer by continuing to provide the same number of days as a traditional calendar but breaking down the length of the overall breaks in between,” Petty said.

Holmes offers students the chance to come to school even over breaks by way of programs partially sponsored by a variety of community organizations.

As far as Saline schools are concerned, Graden said the balanced calendar idea at this point is just that.

“There have been no formal decisions or discussion,” he said, mentioning the two sample calendars shown at the school board meeting. “Those truly were examples.”

If any change is made, Graden said it is the district’s goal to give at minimum a year’s warning prior to implementation.

“Ultimately, from that standpoint, it is about planning,” he said.

Graden said his focus at the moment is on the current bond improvements commencing within the schools, and that a more serious discussion concerning the potential for balanced calendar will take place in the fall.

Preliminary polls show the majority is still against the idea.

“Right now it’s 55 percent ‘no,’ 39 percent ‘yes’ and five percent ‘not sure,’” Graden said on Monday afternoon.