School calendar committee uses first meeting to set ground rules

Reproduced from The Beaufort Gazette
Published Fri, Aug 15, 2008

The first meeting of a Beaufort County School District committee charged with recommending one, universal calendar for all county schools next year started off calmly Thursday evening.

Calmly, perhaps, because the committee's goal is greatly simplified: keeping two calendars isn't an option.

"We are not here to discuss whether we maintain the status quo," said Randy Wall, a district academic improvement officer leading the committee of mostly educators and parents.

Wall and the committee's co-leader, Lady's Island Middle School principal Terry Bennett, used most of the first meeting to set boundaries and make clear where the committee might hit roadblocks -- particularly with state-mandated school year start dates.

Two years ago, a committee charged with the same goal recommended a hybrid that straddled the district's traditional and year-round calendar. It began July 30, 2007, and ended May 30. The S.C. attorney general rejected the calendar, viewing it as a way to circumvent state law that prevents districts from starting a school year before the third week in August.

After speaking with a school district and S.C. Department of Education attorney, Wall said the committee could ask for a waiver again from the state if it wanted to start earlier, but the calendar would likely have to be a bonafide year-round calendar -- one with a start date closer to July 15.

"They're not the attorney general, but I think they're giving us good advice," Wall said of the attorneys.

Debate over the district's year-round and traditional calendars has long stoked parents' ire countywide. The district is eager to adopt only one calendar, arguing that it's more efficient and makes it easier to offer districtwide teacher training.

Bennett released the results of a survey of committee members' priorities.

Among the committee's priorities:

•The calendar must have two full weeks at winter break

•Students must have the Wednesday before Thanksgiving off

•The calendar should begin as early as the state allows

•It should have as many full weeks of instruction as possible

•A teacher work day should be scheduled at each semester break

"A lot of those are just mechanical issues," Wall said. "Keep in mind we're focused on student (success)."

Low on the committee's priorities were closing school for an entire week around Thanksgiving and closing schools on the Thursday and Friday during the Heritage Golf Tournament on Hilton Head Island each spring.

Committee members also were interested in data -- lots of it. Results from last year's Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test, given to students in grades three through eight, are tentatively scheduled to be released Sept. 9, and the committee could compare results between traditional and year-round schools, Wall said.

Two years ago, former interim superintendent Phillip McDaniel gave the previous committee data showing students at year-round schools performed slightly better on the PACT than those in traditional schools, but he didn't consider the difference significant.

"I would caution you, however, not to hang your hat on that data," Wall told the committee. "I'm not sure that you're going to have a road-to-Damascus experience."

The district agreed to get some data on high school students and how early start dates or late end dates could affect their ability to hold summer jobs. Susan Dee, a committee member and teacher at H.E. McCracken Middle School, raised that question.

"You always hear it, but I don't really know how true that is," she said.

Though the number of committee members is largely split between those representing schools on traditional and year-round calendars, it is weighted more heavily toward the district. There are almost double the number of district employees to parents on the 32-member committee.

The last committee included just 14 members, nine of whom were not district employees. Charles Johnson, a committee member and assistant principal at Robert Smalls Middle School, said the new dynamic could make the committee more productive.

"I think it's going to turn out to be a positive situation," he said. "I think the educators bring a great amount of expertise."

The committee will meet through September and present superintendent Valerie Truesale with a recommendation, which she could give to the school board Oct. 7.

The committee will meet again at 6 p.m. Thursday at Okatie Elementary School.

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