Districts scramble to add days to school schedules

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Adding five days of instruction to school calendars this fall, as required by a new Michigan law, is interfering with vacation plans for Birmingham Public Schools parent Sheryl Shenefelt.

The district is among many trimming Christmas breaks and other time off for students to comply with the law. The change has drawn attention to the 2005 state law that prevents public schools from opening until after Labor Day.

“We would prefer the longer break — we celebrate Christmas and then also like to go visit family in Florida, so the longer time allows for this,” said Shenefelt, who has two children in the district, a fifth-grader who’s 10 and a ninth-grader who’s 14.

While some parents like Shenefelt are unhappy with the new state mandate, others welcome an early start to the school year. The law requires districts to provide at least 180 days of instruction in 2016-17, up from 175 days the past three years, 170 days in 2012-13 and 165 days before that.

Districts must decide how to incorporate those days. The new rule now puts Michigan on par with school districts around the country.

As the start of school approaches, districts have had time to adjust their schedules to start the year early — by obtaining a waiver from the state Department of Education — or extend classes further into June or reduce holiday breaks.

Department of Education spokesman Martin Ackley says he hasn’t received many complaints.

“Because school calendars are locally determined decisions, the Michigan Department of Education has not received much ‘pushback’ from parents or students,” he said.

Some districts, including Oak Park Public Schools, are among those that requested waivers to begin school before Labor Day with the 2016-17 academic year.

Instead of the more common Sept. 6 start day, classes for Oak Park students begin Aug. 30.

As of mid-August, the department had granted 53 waivers for local school systems and countywide intermediate school districts and issued 25 denials. The number of waivers issued by the state has risen over the past several years, from nine in 2007 to 66 in 2014 and 100 last year.

“Waivers approved for intermediate school districts can be used by any local district within that ISD,” Ackley said.

“We won’t know all of the local districts that use those ISD waivers until the reporting period at the end of the school year.”

Ackley said waiver requests are handled on a case-by-case basis.

“Oak Park was approved based on its need to comply with a persistently lowest-achieving school reform measure, which required them to add additional student contact time,” he said.

Oak Park Superintendent Daveda J. Colbert said students will have three full days of school before Labor Day.

“In years past, there has been no school for students on those days,” said Colbert. “Now, the conferences are scheduled in the evenings, after a full day of school. The breaks, which include the Christmas holiday, winter break and spring break, are still the same as last year.”

Parent Ramona Edwards of Oak Park welcomes the early start to the school year. She has six children in the district, ranging from 8 to 16 years old.

She attended a back-to-school fair Thursday at Einstein Elementary School, where huge containers filled with rulers, pencils, glue sticks and other free supplies were available for parents.

“It’s different, but I think it’s necessary because the kids are just at home anyway, and for them to compete globally, it only makes sense for them to go ahead and start now,” Edwards said. “And it won’t interfere with vacation time because we’ll still have that extended Labor Day weekend.”

Parent Marqual Jeter also attended the fair, accompanied by his 5-year old son, who will begin kindergarten next week.

He said he is fine with the early start of school in the district, but his daughter, not so much.

“My daughter attends Oak Park Preparatory Academy, and she wanted to attend cheerleader camp,” said Jeter. “But I told her this is more important than camp. She was kind of upset but she needs to be there for the first two days because if she doesn’t, everybody else will be ahead of her.”

Ackley said reasons for denial “can vary greatly.”

Some districts, for instances, requested a waiver to align their calendar with that of a college or university, only to learn later that doing so “was unnecessary to continue offering dual-enrollment opportunities,” he said.

“Others have been denied because they did not meet the length of summer break requirement to be considered a bona fide year-round school,” Ackley said. “Others lacked an educational reason from which the department could base its approval.”

The Troy Public School District was among the districts whose waiver requests were denied.

“We had decided not to pursue a start before Labor Day on our own, but did not formally withdraw so it is accurate to say that they denied us, but we had already made the decision that it would not work for us this school year,” said district spokeswoman Kerry Birmingham.

Birmingham said the new state law will not affect the district. “In terms of the calendar, we have always had 180 days so the extra days do not affect us — but we will say that it is always a challenge to fit those 180 days into the calendar restrictions we are prescribed by the Legislature,” she said.

The Clarkston Community School District also was denied a waiver.

“Based upon feedback from parents, (we) decided not to go in that direction, before the state denied the request,” said Superintendent Rod Rock. “Hence, their denial had no effect on our calendar.”

While some districts will begin the school year early, others are shortening holiday breaks.

The Berkley School District will start classes Sept. 6, but reduced the Christmas holiday break from 10 days to seven.

“Each year we work with our Education Association to agree on a calendar,” district spokeswoman Jessica Stilger said.

“All parties agreed that returning from winter break on Jan. 4 worked best for the semester and prevented school from extending into the fourth week in June.”

Stilger said the district also will have a shorter midwinter break.

“As of now, we haven’t heard any concerns from our parents,” she said.

“We released our calendar in late spring to allow our families time to plan their vacations.”

The Birmingham Public Schools district did not seek a waiver, but is abbreviating its Christmas holiday break from 10 days last year to seven school days this year.

“We adjusted our calendar to accommodate the additional required days,” district spokeswoman Marcia Wilkinson said.

Resistance has been minimal, she said.

“We have only heard from a couple of families,” she said.

“Those who contacted us wanted the longer holiday vacation.”

She concluded, “Added instructional time is always a positive thing.”


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