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News Education Macon schools to adopt alternative schedule

Macon County School Board members debated the merits of adopting an alternative schedule Monday. The vote passed with a split vote of three to two. Photo by Mike KesselringSchool board splits on 2011/12 calendar option

Macon County schools have applied for a waiver from the State Board of Education that would allow them adopt an alternative calendar for the next school year which would include two, week-long periods for students to catch up or brush up on school subjects. In addition, the alternative calendar moves the school start date to earlier in August, allowing the district to finish the first semester before the beginning of the end-of-year holidays.

If the waiver is approved and the alternative calendar accepted, the 2011/12 school year will begin on Aug. 4, three weeks earlier than the traditional calendar preference which the school board has approved as a back-up in case the waiver is denied.

Macon County schools have applied for a waiver from the State Board of Education that would allow them adopt an alternative calendar for the next school year which would include two, week-long periods for students to catch up or brush up on school subjects. In addition, the alternative calendar moves the school start date to earlier in August, allowing the district to finish the first semester before the beginning of the end-of-year holidays.

If the waiver is approved and the alternative calendar accepted, the 2011/12 school year will begin on Aug. 4, three weeks earlier than the traditional calendar preference which the school board has approved as a back-up in case the waiver is denied.

The alternative calendar also includes two, five-day “intercession” periods after the first nine weeks of both the fall and spring semester. The intercession days are designed to provide students with opportunities for remediation in subjects they are struggling in and for enrichment in subjects of interest.

If approved, Macon County would be the first district to be granted approval for a non-traditional calendar, according to schools superintendent Dan Brigman. Brigman also noted that gaining local control over the school calendar was included as a goal for the district in the school board’s 2010/11 Strategic Plan.

The calendar has been a frequent topic of discussion in the which the district has struggled to make up snow days and comply with state mandated starting and ending dates for the school year. Until 2003, control of the school calendar was left to local boards of education in North Carolina. At the time, there was a wide diversity of calendars in the state given that districts in the mountain region often had very different needs than those in the central and coastal regions.

Then in 2004, a law was passed that mandated statewide restrictions in starting and ending dates. Though supported by coastal tourism and trade lobby groups, the legislation has been resisted by school districts and teachers’ organizations such as the North Carolina Association of Educators, and in recent years several attempts have been made to introduce legislation that would overturn the law.

The non-traditional calendar has been promoted by Brigman as one way in which the county would be able to regain some control over these issues. The school board authorized Brigman to develop a possible non-traditional calendar that would meet the requirements of a waiver at its January meeting.

After extensive discussion and debate on Monday night, the board of education authorized Brigman to apply for the waiver, which is based on the board’s approval of the alternative calendar. However, the board was unable to reach consensus and the motion to approve the alternative calendar and proceed with the application led to a split vote.

Many of the questions that board members had about the alternative calendar were expressed in remarks during the public comment portion of the meeting, particularly those expressed by Bob Kuppers, a Franklin High School civics teacher, football coach and member of the county’s board of commissioners.

“I understand we’ve had the vote from the stakeholders in our system, but I’m not sure exactly how much the parents have been made aware of what we’re proposing, and that’s what bothers me more than anything else.” — School Board Chairman Jim Breedlove

Kuppers acknowledged that he had originally supported the alternative calendar, which was approved overwhelmingly by school faculty during the calendar drafting process. He noted that the calendar provides many advantages to the county, particularly since it allows schools to complete their first semester before the Christmas holiday. In addition, Kuppers noted that the calendar will be synchronized with the schedule at Southwestern Community College, a benefit particularly for the Macon Early College program and other dual enrollment students. He also noted it would give some teachers – those not coaching or involved in intercession activities – a week-long break in the middle of the fall semester.

But Kuppers said he also had many misgivings about the schedule, including that it provides little flexibility for make-up days in the event of a major snowfall before the holidays. He also suggested that the intercession days should be broken up to give support for students struggling at the end of the semester. Finally, he questioned how the expanded school year would be funded.

“Where are we going to take that money from?” Kuppers asked the board, adding that he was concerned that taking money away from the high school’s summer school program or learning center would have a negative impact on some students.

However, Kuppers told the board that despite all of these questions, he had still supported the alternative calendar until he recently learned that a state bill to return control of the school calendar to local school districts, House Bill 175, is gaining momentum in the General Assembly.

Kuppers recommended that the school board delay implementation of the alternative until they see the outcome of HB 175. He added that delaying the calendar until the 2012/13 school year would also give teachers, staff and parents time to plan for a shortened summer. “I hate to rush in and lock us into a calendar based on restrictions and waivers when, with a bit of patience, we could have exactly what the district wants without it,” he said. Kuppers said he didn’t see the pressing urgency to apply for the waiver for the 2011/12 school year. If the deadline is the only reason for the urgency, “That’s even more reason that we take a deep breath, do a little bit more analysis, and push implementation to 2012.”

Josh Johnson, a social studies teacher from FHS who addressed the board, said that he agreed with Kuppers and cautioned the board against rushing into the calendar for the coming school year. A number of board members took the issues raised by Kuppers into consideration during their discussion later in the meeting. Gary Shields said he could not support the alternative calendar as long as the intercession period was scheduled so early in the semester.

“The intercessions are at the wrong place,” he said, adding that he did not think many high school students would admit to themselves that they needed help in a subject so early in the semester.

Board member Jim Breedlove had numerous questions for the superintendent, the schools’ attorney, John Henning Jr., and Pat Davis, the schools’ Director of Testing and Accountability, who developed the various calendar options that were considered by the district’s calendar committee composed of teacher representatives from each school in the county.

Breedlove echoed Kuppers’ concerns regarding how the expanded calendar would be funded in light of potentially drastic cuts being considered in the state budget. Breedlove also indicated that he was hesitant to rush to approve a calendar without more discussion in the community about its potential impacts.

According to Davis, in selection process which school faculty participated in, the non-traditional calendar was selected in a vote of almost two to one (249 to 150). In addition, members of the superintendent’s Parents Advisory Council had also met and voted in support of the alternative calendar.

“I understand we’ve had the vote from the stakeholders in our system,” Breedlove said, “but I’m not sure exactly how much the parents have been made aware of what we’re proposing, and that’s what bothers me more than anything else.”

Jonathan Dunford, a fourth year student at Macon Early College who asked to speak during the discussion, noted while the snow make-up days and delays had been difficult for many students this year, he also thought the board should not rush into a decision about the calendar without more input from others in the community, including students. “I think that maybe we should have a student survey or something to get the opinions of the students,” Dunford told the board.

Breedlove asked whether the board could authorize the superintendent to apply for the waiver, but withhold their final adoption of a calendar pending further consideration.

“I don’t know of any legal reason that you couldn’t apply for a waiver and then decide not to use that waiver later,” Henning said, while adding that as a practical matter it would be better for the board to commit to the calendar it adopted.

“Once the waiver is approved,” added Brigman, “I would see it as my charge to keep this calendar intact as much as possible.” He specifically mentioned the importance of keeping to the intercession schedule that would be submitted to the State Board of Education as the primary rationale for the non-traditional calendar.

Board member Baldwin moved to adopt the alternative calendar, pending approval of the waiver and with the preferred traditional calendar as a fall back. The motion was seconded by Stephanie McCall. Board Chairman Thomas Cabe was forced to break a tie, after Breedlove and Shields both voted against the motion.

“I’ve been on this board for eight years, and I’ve seen what this calendar has done to us as far as our learning and teaching abilities,” said Cabe.

McCall noted that there are currently no days for remediation and enrichment built into the calendar and suggested the opportunity will be valuable for many students. She noted that many teachers will also appreciate the week with no regular classes in the middle of the fall semester.

“You can all see now why no other district has gone down this road,” Brigman remarked before the vote was taken. He noted that an advantage of applying for the alternative calendar would be to begin planning for an earlier start date in August which, in the event that HB 175 is passed, can be easily adjusted. If neither the waiver nor the bill comes through for the county, it will be easier for parents, teachers and students to adjust to a later start date than an earlier start date, he added.





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published: 10/18/2013
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