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Spotsylvania schools may start later in 2013-14

By PAMELA GOULD

Spotsylvania County is considering starting its school year the day after Labor Day next fall, which would align it with most public schools in the Fredericksburg area.

The School Board won’t make a decision until February. A committee led by principals from each school level has been gathering input from staff, parents and others in the community of each school district since October. The committee is providing information that could be used for making a change in the 2013–14 and 2014–15 school years.

More than half of the communities surveyed—16 of 31, or 52 percent—prefer to have the school year begin the day after Labor Day, the committee told the board this week.

The next-most-popular option was to start one week before Labor Day.

However, people also want to avoid having students end the school year in late June, a point that committee leaders and board members said is nearly impossible with the other preferences expressed.

Those surveyed also want to find a way to give students a two-week winter break.

“Something’s going to have to give,” School Board member Jim Meyer said in response to those requests.

He said he wants the committee to present a calendar it sees as the best for student instruction.

This year, Spotsylvania started on Aug. 21, two weeks before the divisions that open the day after Labor Day.

In the region, only Culpeper, Louisa and Fauquier school districts joined Spotsylvania in starting classes in August.

Spotsylvania students are scheduled to finish this school year on June 6.

Spotsylvania implemented the early start to the school year in the 2005–06 academic year to provide more instructional time prior to administration of Standards of Learning tests, schools spokeswoman Rene Daniels said.

Each year a division wants a pre-Labor Day start, it must receive permission from the state. To qualify for consideration, the division must average at least eight days of school closure because of weather or other emergencies over five years of the previous decade.

Data assembled by the committee show Spotsylvania may not qualify for the coming school year unless students miss nine school days this year.

In favoring the later start, community members conveyed that they want the school calendar aligned with other districts in the region and that the post-Labor Day opening works better for planning vacations and day care. Consistency with other divisions also helps administrators who are registering students transferring into the county. The committee told the board that some parents have registered their children after school started because they weren’t aware of the early opening.

SOL testing is no longer a concern because schools now choose when to administer the test within a window of time, the committee noted. However, the early start can benefit high school students taking the Advanced Placement tests since it gives them more time to prepare. Those tests are always administered the first week in May.

Committee member Troy Wright, principal of Riverbend High School, also noted that delaying the school start until after Labor Day would mean that fall sport athletes and marching band members would be one month into their seasons before school began if the date is changed.

The committee also gathered input on the handling of make-up days and found that most communities—21 of 31, or 68 percent—would like the division to use its banked time before requiring students to attend school for additional days. Time is banked by extending current school days. The division has more than the required 180 instructional days built into its calendar.

Committee member and Courthouse Road Elementary Principal Jennifer Belako said staff recommended scheduling any make-up days within the same quarter as they are missed so that the instructional time is made up when it’s needed.

The staff also commented on the best use of teacher-work days and professional learning time, with 61 percent wanting the two things kept separate, Wright said.

Board member Gil Seaux said he’d like to see multiple options for next year’s calendar before making a decision.

Board members Ray Lora and Bill Blaine referenced students in other countries in offering their perspectives.

Lora said students in China and South Korea are outperforming American children in science, technology, engineering and math, so he wanted a calendar that focused on what was best for student learning, not most convenient for staff.

He also said he wouldn’t approve any calendar that gave students Veterans Day off because he felt it was important for them to learn the meaning of service and of doing something beyond themselves.

Board member Bill Blaine said Japanese students attend school more than 200 days a year and he added that U.S. students might do well to follow that model.

“I think that’s the direction we’re going and probably should,” he said.

He also said he was concerned that the school calendar takes into consideration scheduling around what most Christians refer to as Good Friday and Easter and said he expects complaints about that as the population grows increasingly diverse.

He said he would like to establish a fixed schedule for spring break.

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972

pgould@freelancestar.com

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