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Area schools stick to tradition

Others in state going to balanced calendar

– The phenomenon of using a balanced school calendar – more breaks during the year and a shorter summer vacation – is catching on in other parts of Indiana, but it has not yet hit northeast Indiana school districts.

The latest education trend aims to prevent children from forgetting during an extended summer vacation what they learned during the year and to use the breaks throughout the year to help children who are struggling with the material to catch up.

It’s sometimes called year-round though the moniker isn’t exactly accurate. That’s why the phrase “balanced calendar” has taken over.

Balanced calendars have slight variations, but the idea is for students go to school for nine or 10 weeks followed by fall, winter and spring breaks of two or three weeks. During these intercessions, some districts offer enrichment camps for students or remediation for students already falling behind.

The summer break is usually about four to six weeks.

The number of days a child goes to school – a minimum of 180 – doesn’t change. The days are just distributed more throughout the full calendar year.

Though the Indiana Department of Education doesn’t specifically track whether a school has a balanced calendar, the agency does have calendar start and end dates.

About a dozen of those – starting in early August and ending in late June – point to a balanced calendar. They are most prevalent among urban charter schools.

The state’s second-largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has embraced the concept, and others in central Indiana are following suit.

Huntington County Community Schools has considered the option twice in recent years, conducting parental surveys and public forums.

Superintendent Tracey Shafer said sentiment was fairly split. Also, board members were interested in providing learning opportunities in the intercessions but wanted to wait and see whether legislators would provide state support for that.

“To me, personally, there’s not enough data to get a clear view on whether it is better for the children academically,” he said. “If you can remediate during the breaks I would think you could improve academics. Is that solid data? I haven’t seen that yet.”

Locally, Imagine Schools on Broadway is in its second year of using a balanced calendar, and leaders say it’s going well. The students start in early August and get out in late June.

“The most important advantage for us is we aren’t spending a bunch of time reviewing information,” Principal Ra’Chelle Spearman said. “Another thing is having time to refresh and having a break from the everyday aggressive daily grind we face here.”

But even during the intercessions, Spearman said kids are given homework to keep their skills sharp. And the school offers enrichment camps for students on the shorter school breaks, focusing on science, art or other areas of learning.

Spearman said she thinks charter schools are using the calendar more because it’s a smaller group of stakeholders to build a consensus.

Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman Krista Stockman said the district used a balanced calendar at Fairfield Elementary for six years in the 1990s but didn’t see a difference in achievement.

“Nothing is ever completely off the table, but right now that isn’t something that we’re actively looking at,” she said. “Whenever we do make a change at any school we want to be sure it will make a difference academically. It’s not something we have heard our parents saying they really want.”

Pros and cons

Michael Slavkin, director of teacher education at Manchester University, said northeast Indiana might be slow to the trend because many communities still revolve around the agricultural calendar of planting and harvesting.

He said other schools have found it helpful in limiting summer-learning loss, and research has found the learning curve is strengthened overall.

Slavkin said if schools remain open during the intercessions, it cuts down on any teacher and utility savings. But he said other peripheral benefits such as better behavior by students are possible.

Ken Hull, superintendent at Speedway Public Schools and current president of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said other districts have found an unexpected improvement in attendance.

This is because both teachers and students have more breaks throughout the year to schedule dentist and doctor appointments, as well as family vacations.

Speedway will decide in early December whether to move to a balanced calendar.

Hull said that when legislators contemplated taking control of the academic calendar, communities began looking at all options.

“We want to control our own destiny. We ought to have the right to a calendar that works for our community,” he said, noting a calendar in his district must end before the Indianapolis 500 in late May.

He also said parents are often mixed on the idea. Some believe it makes finding dependable child care harder. For instance, there are myriad summer camps a child can now attend. But those camps aren’t available in March or in the fall.

Other parents, though, have told administrators they like the flexibility of taking vacations at nonpeak times.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said he was traditionally against balanced calendars until he became chairman of the Senate Education Committee and learned more about the advantages of such a program.

He thinks part of the reason it is blossoming in central Indiana relates to districtwide concerns over academic achievement.

“If you are doing pretty well in academics there’s no push to make a change,” Kruse said.

“In Indianapolis, some schools are struggling with academic achievement so they are doing something to help kids learn better and achieve more.”