Year-round calendar prompts furor from many local parents

Proponents cite academic retention benefits
Dec. 26, 2012 @ 09:43 AM

SANFORD — At its monthly meeting on Dec. 11, the Lee County Board of Education announced a radical proposal to put every single student in Lee County from grades pre-K to 8 in year-round classes starting in July of 2013.

Many parents have been less than pleased.

“Do not make us bow down to what they want,” local parent Charlotte Johns said in reference to the proposal from Lee County Schools’ Calendar Committee, which the school board will most likely vote on in January. “... When you force people to do something, they are going to push back, and it’s not going to be pretty.”

Johns is one of the people who have called or emailed The Herald in the days since the proposed change was announced, although she was one of few who agreed to speak on the record — others cited fear of retribution from school employees or fellow parents in their wish to stay anonymous.

Pros and cons

Johns said she has no problem with year-round classes being available, or with the people who teach at or send their children to year-round schools. Her issue, she said, would be the lack of an option for parents who want to send their children to a school with a traditional calendar.

Currently, options do exist. Traditional calendars are in use at every elementary school in the county except Tramway Elementary School, which operates on a year-round schedule and is open to anyone in Lee County. Students are in class for nine weeks, then have three weeks of vacation, repeating that pattern until all four nine-week sessions are completed. Summer vacation lasts four weeks instead of eight.

There was talk several years ago of starting a year-round middle school, but after a survey of 1,263 parents of rising middle school students in 2010 found 36.4 percent in favor, the idea never took off.

Tramway, however, has been quite popular. Despite relying entirely on voluntary applicants and only offering bus service to part of the county, it had 692 students last year when the district average for elementary schools was 578. It has also demonstrated academic success well above what other local schools have achieved.

Last year, 80.2 percent of Tramway’s third, fourth and fifth graders could read at or above grade level, compared to a countywide rate of 67.8 percent. The school also had 89.8 percent of students at grade level for math, compared to 82.2 percent across the district.

In a story published in The Herald earlier this year, employees from both Tramway and the district office attributed that success directly to its non-traditional calendar, which they said helps improve retention by not giving students a long enough summer break to forget the previous year’s lessons. Educators said they could cover more subject matter since the first several weeks of class didn’t have to be spent re-teaching old material.

But Johns and other parents said the potential pitfalls of switching every elementary and middle school to a year-round schedule — the redistricting of elementary schools, teachers losing the ability to take summer jobs, more parents needing childcare services, and summer vacations disrupted or stopped, to name just a few of their concerns — outweigh the potential benefits.

Reluctant to redistrict

Even at least one Tramway parent is against the proposed changes.

Martha Bursey, who has two daughters at the school, said she loves the year-round calendar but feels for the teachers and parents who have already paid for summer vacations who can’t get that money back if the recommendation passes, or who take long trips or trips at specific times, like for family reunions, which might no longer be possible.

For her, though, the main concern is redistricting — which hasn’t occurred at the elementary level in seven years, before any current students were in school.

If all elementary schools were to switch to the same calendar, Tramway would no longer need to be open to all families in the county. Children in the area could be taken from their current schools and be put into Tramway, and current students could be taken out and sent closer to home.

Sharon Spence, public information officer for the school district, said there’s no chance for students to be grandfathered in at their current schools because the elementary schools are already overcrowded as is.

Bursey said she worries about the effect of changing schools on her children and other young students.

“I have a child in third grade,” she said. “She’s 8 years old. She’s spent half her life at that school.”

Tough change

Johns didn’t mention redistricting as one of the reasons she opposes the recommendation that will be discussed during and before the school board’s Jan. 8 meeting, although she did speak at length about the effect the changes might have on extracurricular activities, especially her children’s involvement in the Boy Scouts of America, which generally schedules major trips and camps during the summer.

She said she has already paid for two summer camps in late July, meaning she will lose her money, and her children will lose those opportunities, should the proposed changes go into effect. The Calendar Committee is reportedly still tweaking some specifics, but a near-final draft recommends that school start July 17.

On Tuesday, several members of the committee sat down to explain how and why they made their decision, acknowledging the opposition but maintaining that academic benefits outweigh any negative side effects.

Andree Freeman, a parent who has had children in both local private and public schools for the past 15 years, including at Tramway, said she whole-heartedly supports the recommendation — which passed the committee unanimously, with some members abstaining.

“We need to do what’s in the best interest of the children and those who are working hard to educate them,” she said. “... Change is always tough, even good changes.”

Although the meeting agenda hasn’t been released yet, Board of Education Chairman Lynn Smith said the calendar recommendation will be voted on after the pre-meeting public hearing. He said he wants a vote sooner rather than later so that if the proposal does pass, the schools have as much time as possible to work on the changes.

And even though some parents, including Bursey, also questioned how much planning would be able to occur in six months, Floyd L. Knight teacher and Calendar Committee member Marilyn Elliot said she supports a quick start because she thinks any change that will help children learn more should be implemented as soon as possible, even if it has potentially negative — but non-academic — ramifications.

“Education needs to come to the forefront in this country, and that’s what this is doing,” she said.