Parents love or hate the “balanced” school calendar, which DeKalb schools is now considering

Editor's note: This story was published Sept. 18, 2013. In October, DeKalb schools did adopt a balanced calendar for school year 2013-2o14.

Playing with summer days off is playing with dynamite if you’re a school superintendent, but that hasn’t deterred Dekalb County superintendent Cheryl Atkinson.

For the second time in six months, she’s floating the idea of shrinking summer vacation.

The idea is to improve school performance by giving students fewer summer days off to forget what they learned. When Atkinson asked DeKalb parents last spring about it though, they said no.

DeKalb spokeswoman Lillian Govus said Atkinson isn’t pushing the proposal so much as responding to interest among some for calendar changes.

One of the complaints last spring was the short lead time: the school system proposed the changes just months ahead of summer break. This time, officials are giving parents months more to plan, which might remove a concern.

The so-called “balanced” calendar has proven politically toxic elsewhere, but some praise its affect on students and their ability to retain hard-won knowledge over a shorter summer vacation.

In Cobb County, controversy over such a calendar played a role in election campaigns and may have led to the downfall of at least one school board member. A new school board promptly ditched the balanced calendar, to the consternation of many parents who’d grown used to it, including Tricia Knor.

“The whole thing could not have been more of a train wreck.” Though initially skeptical of the new calendar, Knor said her son benefited from the extra down time in fall and spring and reported lower stress levels during the year it was in place.

DeKalb is asking the public to choose between a traditional and a balanced calendar, in an online survey that ends Sept. 26. The panel of parents and school staffers that Superintendent Atkinson empowered to recommend the calendar ideas also proposed early release from school one day a week.

The lost hour would be made up by starting a few minutes earlier each day or by getting out a little later the rest of the week, a spokeswoman said. It would give teachers time for mandatory training.

Eugene Walker, the school board chairman, said he’s heard no comments about the balanced calendar, but he’s heard from more than a dozen parents concerned about having to leave work early to pick up their kids on the early release days. “Not a one came to me and said they supported it,” he said.

Across metro Atlanta, there’s hardly a consensus that cutting summer short is a good or bad thing.

“There’s some research that show it improves performance,” said Linda Schultz, who chairs the Fulton County school board. “However, when you look at the totality of research, there are so many other things you can do to help a child learn that come well ahead of changing the calendar.” She’s heard from proponents on both sides in her North Fulton district, but said the majority view is don’t mess with summer break.

Other school systems that have tried balanced calendars praise them. Henry County has had one in place for about a decade, and officials there say routine surveys show it’s been well-received by parents, students and faculty.

Rockdale County has a balanced calendar, and parent Jessica Smith said it was disconcerting starting back to school in July instead of August. But she said it’s worked out for her and her second grade daughter.

“Frankly, kids start to get bored with the long summer break,” Smith said. Smith enjoys the time off in fall and spring because it’s an off season for traveling, and destinations like Disney World are not jam-packed.

But Smith has a flexible schedule. She works from home as a freelance writer, so child care isn’t a problem during the offbeat times of year when kids on balanced calendars are home.

“I don’t have a problem with the balanced calendar, but I can understand why other people would,” said Nancy Moore, a mother in North DeKalb who is often home during the day and has older kids who can be trusted at home on their own.

The National Association of State Board of Education issued a report two years ago advocating an overhaul of U.S. school systems. The proposal included adoption of the balanced calendar because children don’t need the summer off to work farms as they did when the traditional school year was established generations ago.

Though research shows “summer learning loss is real,” the evidence isn’t clear that these calendars improve performance, said NASBE spokesman Steve Berlin. Still, he said, changing the school year is an option “probably worth examining “ in districts “under more pressure than ever to show gains in academic achievement.”

The calendar issue isn’t dead in Fulton. The board will talk about next year’s calendar at this week’s meeting.

Superintendent Robert Avossa said he doesn’t have a strong opinion on it. “The long and short of it is I’m sure we can all locate research that would support almost any type of school calendar arrangement. But what we really should be focusing on is is the quality and effectiveness of teachers and principals as well as parent support. Nothing,” he said, “affects student achievement more than those factors.”

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