Last year, San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten added a day to the school year.

Not everyone was thrilled. Yes, it gave students more time to learn. But even slight changes to the academic calendar have big repercussions for all 131,000 students, their families and the district’s 13,000 employees – including graduation dates getting changed and families rearranging vacation and child care plans.

Christie Ritter on Schools

Now new changes are in the works that would push the start of the school year before Labor Day for at least the next two years and move some schools off of their year-round schedules. Eventually, the district wants all schools on the same calendar.

The school board relies on a committee to vet changes to the schedule.

And who sits on that committee has become a controversy within a controversy: On top of the prospective changes themselves, some parents believe the calendar committee is over-represented by district employees. Of the 24 members of the group, five are parents. The other 19 members represent district employees, including teachers, principals and other staff members.

The calendar committee does not make the ultimate decision on setting the academic calendar – that rests with the school board, which is expected to vote on the 2015-16 and 2016-17 calendars Tuesday.

After some outcry from parents who felt they hadn’t been consulted, the district sent out a phone survey Nov. 21, the Friday before schools let out for a week-long Thanksgiving break – not the most ideal timing to solicit input. But it did give parents a chance to weigh in. They were given the option of voting on two proposed school start dates – Aug. 31 or Sept. 8, 2015, or they could register that they had no opinion.

Forty-five percent of respondents said they preferred sticking to the usual post-Labor Day start of school. Thirty-seven percent said they would prefer the Aug. 31 start date. Seventeen percent said either date was fine.

There was no option to call back or to take the survey online or by text. But those who didn’t respond to the initial call on Nov. 21 got another call the following Monday, Nov. 24, said district spokeswoman Linda Zintz.

Starting school in August would be a break with the district’s tradition of beginning the academic year on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Because of the way the 2015 calendar falls, the school year would not end until June 20, 2016, if school started Sept. 8, 2015, the day after Labor Day.

High school parents and teachers in particular are concerned the later start date would shorten the time students have to learn Advanced Placement course material, since AP tests are given on the same day nationwide. Districts with later start dates end up with less time to cover the same amount of material. And ending the school year in late June would interfere with summer activities and delay job opportunities. An August start date would better align with local community college calendars.

Parents have long charged the district with having a calendar that’s rough on families. Until this year, when an additional day was added, the school year ended on either a Monday or Tuesday.  It’s a tough sell to get families anxious for summer break to show up for the last day or two of school when they follow a weekend. That’s because experience has shown that in most classrooms, the final days are more about movies, yearbook-signing parties and picnics.

Amy Redding, who chairs the District Advisory Committee, is one of the five parents on the calendar committee. At a recent school board meeting, she called on the district and the board to create a calendar that better reflects the needs of district families.

“A good way to do it would be to go through the individual clusters,” Redding said. “You have to have an authentic conversation with everyone in that cluster: parents, teachers, staff and administrators.  You have to have a deep conversation with the boots on the ground and have recommendations come out of the clusters that show unity within the cluster.”

Redding and other parents say the calendar committee’s composition encourages a narrow focus, based on various interest groups. There are five committee seats for teachers, nominated by their union, five seats for principals, nominated by the administrators union, five seats for classified staff, nominated by their union, three seats for central office district staff, nominated by the Leadership and Learning Division and one seat for the school police officers, also nominated by their union.

“There is no desire to share power,” among the current committee, Redding said.  She would be “open to anything that makes this process more transparent, that gives stakeholders a voice in this process of the calendar and other issues in San Diego Unified. It’s time to re-think it.”

“At what point can the school district do its business without being micromanaged by parents?” said Barbara Flannery, a PTA representative who has previously been on the calendar committee and a parent of a student at San Diego High. “Sometimes it’s really hard to represent everybody. Sometimes you have to step back and see what’s best for the group as a whole. Sometimes the decision of the board seems to turn on a small group that board doesn’t want to run afoul of.”

San Diego Unified is one of only three large or medium districts with a September start date in the county. Among the benefits of starting the school year in August:

• Better alignment with other districts’ athletics because CIF football games begin in August

• More instructional time for students who take Advanced Placement tests in May

• Expanded opportunities for exiting seniors to participate in early summer pre-collegiate classes or programs

The other piece of this puzzle involves schools within San Diego Unified that follow a year-round calendar. The district is considering converting those schools so that everyone follows a traditional calendar. The first pilot group of schools targeted for conversion includes many with a high enrollment of military families. Those families often receive orders to deploy to a new location in May or June, long before the year-round academic school schedule ends in July.

There are 15 schools currently planned to transition to the traditional calendar in 2015-16, with another group selected each year. After four years, all schools would be on the same calendar, said Zintz. Each year of transitions would cost about $3 million, because employees would be moved to a July 1-June 30 fiscal year.

The district believes having all schools on a single calendar would:

• Help families who have children at different grade levels. Some have students on a traditional calendar in high school and a year-round schedule in middle school, making it difficult to coordinate vacations and child care;

• Help families who rely on older siblings to care for younger children; and

• Make the transition from one school to another easier if both schools are on the same calendar.

Eventually, the district may adopt a modified traditional calendar, Zintz said, which would mean shorter summer breaks, but a longer spring break and a fall break as well. Other county school districts, such as Encinitas, are on the modified calendar already.

Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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