DeKalb to consider shorter summer breaks

Students in DeKalb County could get shorter summer breaks, but more time off in cooler months, if officials overhaul the attendance calendar.

Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson's interest in a "balanced" calendar could also send parents hunting for child care or for new travel plans.

Atkinson said Thursday that she is exploring an alternative to three months of summer vacation. It merited a few brief lines in her state of the school district address, but it could change the lives of nearly 100,000 students and their parents in Georgia's third largest school system.

"We want to implement a balanced calendar so that our students don't spend so much time away from the learning environment during the summer," Atkinson said. After her speech, a spokesman said that a change could come as soon as next fall, though no decision has been reached.

A similar change in Cobb County last year triggered a backlash from parents and ultimately was reversed. Some candidates for school board used it as campaign fodder. Infighting that ensued on the school board, attributed at least in part to the calendar, drew scrutiny from a regional accrediting agency.

"It's going to probably be like what Cobb went through," said Sadie Jo Dennard, the education chair of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce.

A handful of school systems in metro Atlanta, including the city of Decatur where Atkinson was speaking, have adopted alternative calendars. Students typically end summer break sooner or start it later, in exchange for time off in the fall and winter.

Teachers need that time to regroup and analyze students' progress, Atkinson said. And shorter summer breaks would leave children with less idle time, she said. "Many of them don't have anything to occupy them."

David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, a school employee association, said balanced calendars give "burned out" teachers a chance to recharge during the school year. He said he'd heard no complaints about such calendars in Rockdale and Henry counties.

Henry was among the first school systems in Georgia to adopt a shorter summer break. A decade ago, the system took 11 vacation days from summer to create a weeklong fall break and to extend the Thanksgiving and Presidents Day holidays.

Parents, students, teachers and business people are asked about the calendar in routine surveys by the Henry system, said Tony Pickett, assistant to the superintendent.

"The feedback on that particular item is always positive," Pickett said. At first, parents questioned where they'd find daycare, but local providers accommodated the changes. Then, he said, parents discovered a big advantage: less crowded vacation trips with most other school systems still in session.

But Gil Hearn, a Dunwoody parent, said the idea "presents a significant cultural shift" for parents and children. He worries about a political revolt at a sensitive time in Atkinson's administration. She was hired in the summer and has undertaken big changes, including a reorganization of the central office.

"It may be a great idea," said Hearn, the founder of a school watch group called Parents for DeKalb Schools. "But I question if now is the time to implement that given everything else we're dealing with in this district."

Nancy Jester, a board member in North DeKalb, said she thinks her constituents would go for it, though.

"I think it could be well-received," Jester said. "But I could be wrong."