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Flint schools to start earlier, end later to reduce 'brain drain'

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Flint Community Schools Superintendent Derrick Lopez, with Freeman Elementary students El’Geno Garland, Mickial Sadler, and Dejuane Carroll, said the district tried a balanced calendar at the school for three years, with good results.

Flint — The calendar in Flint Community Schools will start classes earlier in the summer, end them later in the spring and include six multi-day breaks as part of a new effort to keep children academically engaged and let teachers recharge.

Flint public schools is positioning itself to be the largest urban district in Michigan to have a "balanced" calendar for all of its schools for 2019-20, a move education experts say can reduce summer learning loss and provide more learning opportunities for students who lack them.

A balanced calendar features 180 days of instruction just like a traditional school calendar, but students in Flint will start the school year Aug. 7, end classes June 18 and get six breaks of four to 10 days — called "intersessions" — throughout the year. 

Students will be in class for roughly 35 school days to study defined units of work, followed by an intersession, Flint Superintendent Derrick Lopez said.

Students who have not mastered the material will be asked to go to school during the intersession where they can get help from teachers and other staff before moving on to the next unit, Lopez said.

Intersessions will include both instruction periods and activities, giving students both mental and physical stimulation during break periods, school officials said.

Lopez said the district tried a balanced calendar at one of its elementary schools for three years, starting in the 2016-17 school year, and the results were positive.

"We found it actually is good for kids, it is good for the teachers and it's good for the parents and the community as well," Lopez said.

"Because there are shorter breaks under the balanced calendar, kids don’t lose that muscle memory around what is expected of them," he said. “The year is chunked in that way to allow for literally a balance of units throughout the year that children can then retain."

Instruction during intersession will be led by a rolling schedule of district teachers, Lopez said. There will be a cap on the number of students participating in intersessions for each building, with those who need remediation being enrolled first, followed by those who are performing at a moderate level but could benefit from additional support, school officials said.

"We are the first major city in Michigan to do this district-wide," Lopez said. "There are other smaller districts who have done it. But we are proud we could sit and have a meaningful discussion on it."

Freeman principal Anna Johnson chats with Victoria Depillars. Johnson said "students benefit from regular time off throughout the year."

History of balanced calendars

Across the state, 192 of the state's 900 school districts have state approval to operate a balanced calendar in some form. Forty-five of those are intermediate school districts, which typically cover dozens of local districts.

Some districts use balanced calendars to support an Early-Middle College program, where high students attend college classes. Other districts use the approach for summer learning programs.

One hurdle for districts that want to switch to a balanced calendar: Michigan banned a pre-Labor start for school starting in 2006, requiring districts to get permission to open earlier.

Bill DiSessa with the state Department of Education said districts can operate under a balanced calendar without a Labor Day waiver.

"A balanced calendar is an alternative way of structuring a school calendar, where shorter instructional breaks are scheduled more frequently throughout the year rather than concentrating the time off into a long summer break. They could start in September and finish in July, for example," DiSessa said.

The balanced calendar is also one of the education department's strategies to make Michigan a “Top 10” education state in 10 years.

DiSessa said the state does not know exactly how many districts are operating  on a balanced calendar. Many have the approval but only operate one or two schools that way, according to state data.

The Michigan Department of Education has awarded nearly $4.7 million in year-round grants since 2014 to help local school districts transition to the balanced calendar.

Flint applied for a grant but was denied because it already had one school operating on a balanced calendar, Lopez said. The district is trying to secure funding, including state appropriations, to pay for modern air conditioning in its elementary school to make children more comfortable during warmer months.

Those improvements will not be in place next month but Lopez expected them to be by next school year.

Flint Community Schools Superintendent Derrick Lopez and school board President Diana Wright dance with students during a gym class.

Madison Public Schools in Oakland County moved its only elementary school to a balanced calendar in the 2014-15 school year and received $750,000 from the state to update its cooling systems for classes in August.

Randy Speck, former superintendent of the Madison district, said the experience was all positive.

"When we started to see some improvements in reading and math proficiency at third-grade, we could track that to coming back in early August," Speck said. "When Labor Day rolls (around), we are ready to dive right in.

"From a data-driven mindset having that extra month is very helpful. The summer brain drain is very real." 

Speck thinks a balanced calendar can be especially helpful in urban district where families struggle with poverty and children have limited opportunities to attend camps and recreational programs. The balanced calendar allowed the Oakland County district, which is a district of choice, to provide students with breakfast, lunch and dinner as well, he said.

Moving to a balanced calendar does take some getting used to, Speck said. The district moved its only middle school to a balanced calendar in the 2018-19 school year and is taking a wait and see approach at the high school, Speck said.

"I'm not convinced it works for every community. Politics can get involved. In the west and northwest side of the state, it would be hard for them to do that," Speck said. "Districts need buy-in."

Research on benefits mixed

Elizabeth Moje, dean of the College of Education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said current calendars with September start dates and early June end dates are not based on academic research, but are "just traditional" for Michigan schools.

Under a regular school calendar, students have a semester break at the end of 90 class days. After another 90 class days, the district has a summer break of eight to 10 weeks, during which students often suffer learning loss.

The research on balanced calendars is mixed, Moje said, but what's key is for a district to change how it teaches students and get buy-in from staff and the community.

"Sometimes people make calendar changes but don’t change anything else about instruction and they don’t make changes to take advantage of the new structure," Moje said. "It's how they use that intersession. It's not just vacation."

Research does show that distributed breaks are likely to be productive for both students and teachers, giving them time to decompress, she said. But these same break can be a detriment to children who don’t have access to resources for continued learning, Moje said.

"One of the best thing that can happened with a balanced calendar is camps like music, dance and art — things for children who don’t have access to external resources so they can get those opportunities during the school year," she said.

While there is no evidence yet that a balanced calendar will improve academic performance, Moje said additional learning opportunities and reduced learning loss should lead to better outcomes.

In the Flint public schools, proficiency rates for third-grading reading and college readiness are well below the state average. In the 2017-18 school year, 10.8% of third graders scored proficient or above on the state's English language arts assessment, while less than 5% of high school seniors were deemed college-ready based on SAT scores.

"A balanced calendar is an equity move," Moje said. "It reduces time out of learning and can provide new opportunities for more distributed learning and reduce stress and anxiety."

One school's experience

Freeman Elementary has been operating with a balanced calendar for the last four years in Flint Community Schools. 

In the 2017-18 school year, students improved reading and math scores in grades three through six, meeting or exceeding their reading growth projections, said Anna Johnson, principal at Freeman Elementary.

Johnson said enrollment has stayed consistent at Freeman and teachers have stayed on staff.

“Intersession programming ... engages students in both mental and physical activity while they’re not required to be in the classroom," she said.

"Students benefit from regular time off throughout the year, which can also be used to catch up on schoolwork with support from adults on-site,” she said. 

Kathy Savoie, a classroom teacher at Freeman, said she loves the balanced calendar approach.

"You get to the point where the students and teachers all need a break and you come back refreshed and they learn better and we teach better," Savoie said.