Loosen school-calendar shackles

Mar. 30, 2014 @ 11:53 PM

As the Durham Public Schools board – and other boards around the region – struggled with rescheduling to make up this winter’s unusually large number of missed school days, two principal culprits prompted the difficulties.

One, of course, was the weather. Teased and tormented by snowstorms, near-snowstorms and our northern Piedmont favorite – wintry mix -- school systems opted for understandable caution.

The other culprit hemming in boards’ flexibility lies just 25 miles away on Jones Street in Raleigh. That culprit is legislators who beat the drum for local control and against heavy-handed state mandates – except when they don’t.

Minnie Forte-Brown, vice chairwoman of the DPS board, called out that culprit last week as the board once again tried to squeeze in the mandated 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction. “This is when we need to go to the legislature and tell them that we don’t control the weather and, therefore, they have to do something about the calendar,” Forte-Brown said.

The legislature first created the calendar shackles a decade ago, prompted lobbied by the state’s tourism industry and a grass-roots coalition calling itself Save our Summers that, conveniently for the tourism folks, also wanted to limit the calendar’s incursion into the traditional summer season.

The legislative incursion is fairly bipartisan. The law, which first prohibited schools from opening before Aug. 25 or ending the year later than June 9, was passed by a Democrat-controlled legislature. Last year, with a Republican majority, the legislature actually loosened the bonds a bit. Now, the law requires a “start date no earlier than the Monday closest to August 26 and end date no later than the Friday closest to June 11.”

Some western counties, who have more snow to contend with than we do, have received waivers to start a week earlier.

The traditional summer vacation is a relic of the days when crop cycles and the need for kids to help plant the crops argued for a long summer vacation. From an instructional standpoint, the year-round calendar many parents in Durham and other districts have voluntarily opted for, with more, shorter breaks, is more effective. There’s not that three-month period when kids forget some of what they learned – and many socio-economically challenged children don’t have access to the enriching experiences and home libraries from which, generally, more affluent students benefit.

And the more frequent breaks help forestall the mental and physical fatigue that can plague students and teachers alike.

The state law specifically, by the way, says “there are no educational purpose waivers for exemption of the opening and/or closing dates,” which would seem perverse, to say the least. What better purpose could there be?

This winter’s disruption may hold some hope of persuading the legislature to back off, The Charlotte Observer noted in February. “I think it’s going to get some more traction coming up because so many people are impacted by this storm,” state Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat, told the paper.

Let’s hope she’s right.