Editorial | Time in school trumps time off

When my family lived in Seattle and our children attended public schools there, the joke in our neighborhood was that children barely seemed to attend school between January and April. With federal holidays and mid-winter break, then spring break, attending school seemed to be an afterthought.

The Mercer Island School District ditched mid-winter break in 2007-2008 after one of the most chaotic school terms ever. The 2006-2007 school year featured stormy weather that had not been seen here in years. Storm closures that began in November accumulated to a total of eight days-plus and pushed the end of the school year almost to July. In order to remedy the loss of instruction time, the teachers’ union and the school district agreed to make up some of the time lost by foregoing early-release Mondays for several weeks. The school district got a waiver from the state to end the school term without meeting the 180-day requirement, but still had to extend the school year. After their graduation in the second week of June, seniors — well short of their 180 days — were required but not expected to return to school for make-up days.

Just two years ago, make-up days were scheduled after the last day of school. But let’s not pretend that school days in late June are regular days. Zero is accomplished. The School Board tacitly acknowledged this when it changed the schedule to add in snow days during the winter months. Setting them to coincide with President’s Day and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was a smart way to offer four-day weekends as an alternative to a mid-winter break week.

This year, there are 12 weeks between Jan. 5 and the beginning of spring break. If a mid-winter break is added back in, students will be out of the classroom for a minimum of eight days (counting a LID day), or nine days if one of the built-in snow days is not needed — the equivalent of nearly two school weeks.

What is the effect on students and teachers when continuous time in the classroom is cut short during the late winter months? Time is critical for preparing for the WASL (which, despite a new state superintendent, will still be with us for a time) and everything else. For more than a few parents, extra days off from school for their children does not translate into a vacation. Instead, parents must take time off from work and wrangle daycare or activities for their children. If there are snow or emergency days of the magnitude that there was in 2006-2007, it is highly doubtful that parents would give back mid-winter or spring break days.

What results will the district find in polling parents about school scheduling less than two years after the 2006-2007 term? Hopefully not memory loss. And there is more than bad weather to consider. On May 24, 2005, Islander Middle School was locked down for most of a day when a student brought a gun to school. Just 24 hours later, the school was shut down for three more days when officials learned via e-mail of another possible threat. Those three days led into the Memorial Day holiday. For that two-week period straddling the holiday, school was in session just four days instead of 10. It is these unforeseen times that the school schedule should allow for — not ski trips or even the Olympic Games.

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