January 23, 2021 6:59:38 PM
The Columbus Municipal School District is considering two plans to adjust the school calendar, both of which would shorten the summer break and distribute those days off throughout the school year.
CMSD board president Jason Spears said the district has held virtual meetings with stakeholders to discuss the pros and cons of going from the traditional school calendar, which includes a 10-week summer break, to a modified schedule where students are in class at least a portion of all 12 months.
"(The idea) has had overwhelming support, really," Spears said. "Most people seem to be really behind it."
CMSD is considering two modified calendar plans, both of which would start the upcoming school year in July and end in early June. Both plans would create an extended spring break, from one to three weeks, while one plan calls for a two-week fall break and the other a three-week fall break. The current school year began on Aug. 5 and will end May 21. There is no fall break in the current school calendar.
Spears said the primary benefit of moving to a modified schedule is students' learning retention. According to the district's research, students who attend the traditional school calendar lose the equivalent of 2.6 months of math skills and two months of reading skills over the summer.
"Reconfiguring the schedule seemed like a really good opportunity to address that, and from what we've heard from stakeholders, there's been a welcomed response," Spears said.
Plan A calls for classes to begin July 22. Under Plan B, classes would begin July 15.
"One of the things that came up most often was if this would change how many days students were in school," Spears said. "But neither of the options change that. Students will still be in class for 180, which is what the Department of Education requires."
An example of how it works; mixed reviews from parents
The Mississippi Department of Education gives school districts wide latitude in setting school calendars, although school calendars must be submitted to the MDE for approval. Spears said while about 10 percent of schools nationwide operate on what is broadly referred to as "year-round school," examples in Mississippi are few.
The best example is the Corinth School District, whose 2,700 students are now in their fifth year of a modified calendar similar to the proposals CMSD is considering.
CMSD officials have consulted with Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress as part of those considerations.
Childress said there's little doubt the change to a modified calendar has improved student performance. In Corinth, graduation rates and student achievement have improved. That's especially true for students who struggle to keep up, he said.
"It's definitely been a benefit to a lot of our students," Childress said.
Unlike traditional school calendars, students who have fallen behind often have to wait until summer break to receive remedial instruction. Childress said the modified schedule, where remedial classes can be held during the extended spring and fall breaks, allows teachers to address students' needs in a more timely manner.
"That's really the whole point," Childress said. "It gives you the opportunity for real-time intervention. That's so important because in some situations students fall farther and farther behind."
Although Spears said stakeholders have been generally receptive to the idea of the modified schedule, some parents are still uncertain.
"I'm kind of up in the air about it," said Omar Jones, who has one daughter in pre-K and another in fourth grade. "The biggest concern is, with two working parents like us, what are we going to do about child care? It can be very complicated when you have to have that covered several times a year instead of just the summer."
Shelenia Henry, whose twins are sophomores at Columbus High, said she hates the idea of her kids missing out on the long summer break.
"I'm still not sure about it, to be honest," she said. "I know my kids aren't happy about it at all. They enjoy their summer break. It's the time we have to do things as a family. I guess I'm one of those parents who says, 'let children be children.' The time passes so fast. Let them enjoy their summers."
Angela Jones, whose son is a ninth-grader at CHS, is far more enthusiastic.
"Honestly, I'm kind of loving it," Jones said. "Anything that keeps kids on a consistent routine is a good thing. I like the idea of spreading the breaks throughout the year. I also like the idea of having breaks where kids can get caught up if they need to."
This is not the first time the district has implemented what is commonly called a year-round school calendar.
In 2009, CMSD began a pilot program featuring an extended school calendar at Stokes-Beard and Sale Elementary schools, but dropped the effort after two years when interim superintendent Martha Liddell determined there was not enough funding to continue the calendar, according to previous Dispatch coverage
According to Liddell, the pilot program at the two schools cost nearly $375,000, funds that came from a grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
"At this point, the funding has dried up," Liddell said when it was discontinued.
Childress said that while it is true there might be some additional costs in transitioning to a modified calendar, it wasn't a deal-breaker in Corinth.
"A lot depends on what you do with the spring and fall intercessions, but the dollars spent for that can be diverted from the summer school dollars," Childress said. "You can also find dollars through Title I or Title V. The key issue is, what do you need to do as a school district to make this work? Then you allocate your resources to make it work.
"You probably will see some cost increases in the first year, but for us, it's budget-neutral now," he added.
Spears said the board could decide by April on whether to modify the calendar for 2021-22.
"There are a lot of moving parts that would go into it," he said. "We need to see how it would affect the budget, for example."
Childress said he has no regrets about the decision his district made five years ago.
"You have to have the support of parents and teachers and the community, but you have to realize that not everyone is going to like it, especially at first," Childress said. "What I can tell you is that here, nobody even thinks about the calendar anymore. It's a normal calendar for us."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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