Base school calendar change on educational needs

Here we go again.

The Beaufort County School District has aired another new way to slice up the school year. Under the new proposal, the school year would start earlier (Aug. 17) and dismiss earlier (May 28).

Some days off within the school year would be axed. For instance, the new calendar would give three days off for Thanksgiving, not five.

Also included in the package would be a switch back to the old way of scheduling high schools: courses would last for the full school year rather than a semester, and first-semester exams would conclude prior to the winter break.

These are significant changes and they need a great deal of input from teachers and parents.

The discouraging thing is that every time a new plan is aired it is called a vast improvement. But then a few years later, that vast improvement is ditched for a new vast improvement. What is the public to believe?

In the 1990s, the school district went all out to convince parents and the public that year-round school calendars were best for students. About half the district's schools switched to the new and improved calendars. They featured shorter breaks throughout the year and a longer break in summer, but the schools were in business year-round.

It was to improve learning, especially for struggling students.

It was to better use facilities.

It was to prepare students for a global economy, not hamstring them with an antiquated school calendar based on an agrarian society that no longer exists here.

But in less than a decade, the whole thing was scrapped. A new interim superintendent pushed for a single calendar districtwide, saying it would save at least $500,000.

And in the drama that followed, one veteran educator flatly said that a calendar is not going to provide a fast train to the educational promised land. Even though data was collected to try to discern the academic impact of year-round schools, the administrator cautioned: "I'm not sure that you're going to have a road-to-Damascus experience."

Meanwhile, the state legislature poked its nose into the school-calendar tent. It decreed that as of the 2007-08 school year, no school year could start prior to the third Monday in August. Beaufort County's new proposal would require a waiver from that law.

One thing we have learned from all this is that tinkering with the school calendar is an emotional issue that will always leave a number of people dissatisfied.

With the new proposals, we urge a dose of common sense. Finishing exams before the winter break seems to make sense. Cutting out some of the off days during the school year seems to make sense.

But what do the teachers think? Parents and teachers can give input through School Improvement Councils, but what formal way does the school district have to measure teacher input?

Whatever is decided must be based on what is best to improve learning for the students. If that cannot be shown, we ought to sit out this improvement and wait for the next one to come along.