Local school districts are gathering information about the value of moving to a balanced school calendar. This is part of a greater initiative from the Washington State Legislature about learning recovery.

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A balanced school calendar apportions time off from school more evenly through the year while using the same number of days. Photo courtesy: North Thurston Public School

North Thurston Public Schools has formed a Balanced Calendar Steering Committee of about 50 people, with monthly meetings of parents, students, teachers, administrators, and community partners to discuss and study the issue, and engage the community in the process. “It’s not a done deal and not a rubber stamp process,” assures Monty Sabin, NTPS assistant superintendent of operations. “Raising awareness right now is what’s most important.

It’s probably a good idea to understand what a balanced calendar means. A balanced calendar modifies the traditional 180-day calendar to keep the learning process continuous. Interestingly, the holidays and vacation time off school remains the same as it has been in the past. The difference is how that time is apportioned, including more frequent longer breaks throughout the year and a shorter summer vacation. Year-round school is a misnomer, as it sounds like more school with fewer days off. Students would have seasonal breaks in the fall, winter, and spring. Summer would still be the longest time off.

Vicky Lamoreaux, assistant superintendent of instructional services, is co-leading the initiative and study with Monty. She has worked in the North Thurston Public Schools for the past 30 years, and in fact, graduated from North Thurston High School. “We have to dig deep into the opportunities and constraints of a balanced calendar, including summer learning loss,” she explains. For her, when talking about making any change it is important that the academic competence and emotional growth of students be supported.

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The gap in summer learning loss over the summer continues to increase annually with students living in poverty. Photo courtesy: North Thurston Public School

Holly Burchet-Hall is a visual arts teacher at Chinook Middle School. She wears two hats on the committee, both as a teacher and the North Thurston Education Association representative. “I like the idea of looking at this,” she says. Pandemic restrictions brought dramatic and swift changes to schools requiring remote and hybrid learning. She noticed that when students who needed personalized help got it sooner, it really made a difference. “We can serve students much sooner than waiting until the end of the school year,” she adds. Holly is appreciating this time to pause and reconsider the apportionment of the school calendar and wants everyone in the broader community to think about it.

Some students spend the summertime going to educational camps and attending all sorts of stimulating activities. Not everyone has these advantages. Studies show the gap between these group continues to widen each year. Schools are imagining programming during these breaks that could be enrichment for some and catch up or honing skills for others. Some teachers may want to work the extra time and others may want the time off.

NTPS School Board President Gretchen Maliska said her three older children attended a school with a balanced calendar. “It was really successful,” says Gretchen, whose kids participated in sports and extracurricular school activities. She recalls it took time for people to understand how all the scheduling worked, but were pleased with the ways it worked out. “Once we did it, it was such a benefit,” she says. “I am a board member. I listen to the feedback of community and committee,” she stresses.

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From remediation to acceleration, intersession programming in a balanced calendar is an effective way to better serve students who benefit from more instructional time. Photo courtesy: North Thurston Public School

Richard Thomas, a senior at River Ridge High School, was invited by his principal to participate on the committee. Richard is committed to listening to all sides and opinions. As the son in a military family, Richard has moved almost every 18 months for his whole life. He remains open to the positive outcomes of change. “I’m think the pros outweigh the cons by far, in terms of what we are learning on the committee,” Richard said. “The wrinkles in terms of things like child care and athletic transportations, those can be figured out. The payoff will be in avoiding burnout for many students and preventing regression and learning loss in the summer.”

Of course, there are operational challenges for a district to transition to a balanced calendar. “Summer is been a big construction and project time when no one is around. Schools refresh technology and clean carpets. Not all buildings have air conditioning. There are lots of questions about how the changes, if they occur, will roll out. It’s complicated, as many things are.”

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One-on-one help can make a substantial difference for a student of any age. Photo courtesy: North Thurston Public School

The current school calendar is based on an agrarian society where children needed the summer off to plant crops and work on the family farm. That does not mean it has to be change for the sake of change, but it does merit taking a new look. “I grew up on a farm in Eastern Washington,” remembers Monty. He worked on the family farm in the summer. “An eight-week summer break is still a good amount of time,” he notes.

The committee is seeking as many perspectives as possible and gathering as much information as possible. You can read more about the balanced calendar, meetings notes and upcoming sessions at the NTSD website.

Three Community Meetings are already scheduled for January 19 and 26, and February 2. Locations TBA, time is 6 p.m. Polling and surveys will also be used to collection information from the public. You can check out the large, diverse group of people on the committee. You probably know one of them and can talk to them directly.

A balanced life reduces stress and burn out for students, parents, and teachers. A balance calendar may be part of the solution.

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