Saturday, November 17, 2012

On Making Up School Days

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, my school district in NJ, like many others, used up all the snow days built into our calendar, and some days that were not.  Decisions are being made on how to make up those days to get to the state mandated 180 days of instruction.  Here are some of my thoughts about different ideas of how to make up these days from the perspective of a teacher (or at least this teacher, and I will actually give you what I believe to be the best option at the end)...

1) The state should reduce the number of days required.

Won't happen in NJ because Governor Christie has already said "No" (of course he did, how would his education record look if he ran for higher office and he is attacked for not making kids go the full 180 schools days, and its not a concern for his family because his kids go to a private school where there is no school day requirement).  And then you have state assemblymen and senators who see school as free child care so they will want to keep the 180 day limit (heck, I wouldn't be surprised if they used this crisis to increase the number of days).

Only going to school for 175 days is not going to destroy any child's advancement educationally.  If we were missing 5-10 days every year, that would be a problem. However, what happened this year to the state of NJ was extraordinary, and in light of the problems I will address in the other preposed fixes I will state below, decreasing the number of days required should not be so quickly taken off the table.

2) Add days to the end of the year.

Some parents wrongly believe that if you add days to the end of the year, it will just give teachers an excuse to have another week of "parties" in their classroom.  I take great offense at this belief because it questions teachers' professionalism.  If you extend the week by another five day week, the original last week would become the new week before the last week.  It would NOT be like teachers will be saying, "Yea, I now have TWO weeks to do nothing with these kids."  Trust me, most teachers want to teach up until the end, it allows us to maintain classroom order.  The last day of school tends to be the longest day of the year for me because it becomes more about crowd control as students say good-bye to their classmates and teachers for the summer.

The reason the last week is filled with "parties" is not just to celebrate your child's passage to the next level of their education, but it is for processing out your child.  I typically have to have my final grades in at the end of the last day of school so report cards can be mailed out to parents by the next week.  Last year I had about 5 students make up their last quiz the last day of school.  If we all taught up to the end, then the last day would be filled with tests or other evaluations, and then we would have parent's complaining we were piling on before school gets out.  There are also books and other materials to be collected and lockers to be cleaned out (I should take a picture of the trash cans in the hallway when this takes place).

The problems with adding days on include having to move the date of graduations, parents having to change vacation plans, and let's be honest, there will be some parents who will just not send their kids anyhow those extra five days at the end (more in elementary and middle school, high school exams would be the incentive to keep those kids in school).

3) Taking away Federal Holiday like Martin Luther King's Day, President's Day, Memorial Day or Good Friday.

Not a bad idea, might get some parents offended.  For example, the town next to the district where I teach decided to have school on Good Friday a few years ago.  This caused a fire storm, and the school district redacted the date.  I'm going to be honest, you can have school those days, but the population attending will be so low, it won't be worth teaching anything anyhow because you're going to have to teach it again the next day.

4) Saturdays

Yea right.  Like you would have wanted to go to school on Saturday.  Plus, kids have sports, artistic performances, Hebrew school, and other endeavors that they enjoy that are planned on those days.  Making parents and children be forced to decide which to do is wrong.  There is value to going to dance lesson, soccer practice, or just hanging out with your family (especially that) There is more to a child's life than school, and you can actually be educated in other ways than in school.

5) Take away Spring Break

I have had years where Spring Break was taken away or reduced.  Here is the fact, kids are not products on an assembly line.  Any teacher will tell you it is a long haul from January to April (typically the month of Spring Break) for the student, and it gets more difficult to teach them by the end of March and early April.  A mental fatigue occurs in them.  Give them the break;  it does rejuvenate them to finish well.

You could take away one or two days, but parents will still plan trips regardless.  One year, my school took away two days from Spring Break.  The first day I had about 10 kids in each class (out of an average of 23).  The next, I averaged 4.

6) Add an hour to each school , every 4 days will produce an extra day.

Can't do it according to the NJ State Dept of Education.  A day is a day no matter how many hours.

7) Only cancel school in a blizzard (to save having to add another day)

Safety should always be the primary reason for a snow day.  Superintendents shouldn't become more bold in not canceling school just because they "can't afford" another day off of school.  What they can't afford is a bus or parent getting into an accident because they had to get their child to school in dangerous conditions.  When I taught in CT, 1995 was a bad year where we missed a lot of days of school for snow and had multiple delayed openings.  Late in the year, our Headmaster decided not to have even a delayed opening on a morning that a rain from the night before had frozen over.  It was awful getting in and I wondered why we couldn't just have a two hour delay.  My kids in homeroom complained how dangerous it was as many showed up late.  One of my student's who walked in late laughingly told us, "I just saw (name of School Board member) yelling at Mr. (Headmaster) for not having a delayed opening."  He was in a car pile up. (The road where the accident was you came down a hill to a stop sign.  Cars slid, hit each other, and forced the lead car on to the major road that the school was located)

Final Thoughts

Breaks are invaluable. You are only a kid once, and a kid can learn as much in one day in my classroom as they can by building a tree fort over the summer.  Also family time is MORE important than educational time.  The greater the parental support, the better the chances the child will perform well in school.

Just adding days to add days to say you have 180 does not guarantee they will be days of a lot of educational value.  If parents don't send their kids to school, the day becomes a waste anyhow.  (If a teacher goes through the lesson, they will lose time from advancing to the next lesson as the majority of kids will be "catching up" from the day they missed.)

With all of that if Governor Christie asked me to make the decision for him I would say...

"Have schools add days at the end of the school year (decision must be made early enough that parents don't plan summer vacations and gives districts more than enough time to change graduation nights).  It will cause the least amount of disruption to the school year.  If a school can not make up the days by the end of June, then wave the rest of the days.  Kids need the summer to be kids and do kid stuff and learn kid things."

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