School Year Calendar Feedback for Future Years

A Joint Message from Bellingham Public Schools and the Bellingham Education Association


Dear Students, Staff, Families and Community,

The following email is a bit long, but the topic is very important. We encourage each of you to take a few minutes to read this, watch our video and respond to the survey if you have any strong opinions on the topic of our school calendar.

When we talk with staff and families, whether at PTA or staff meetings, on the soccer field or other locations out in the community, a frequent topic of conversation is our school year calendar. Common questions include:

  • Will we continue to have Staff Learning Days/Purple Fridays?
  • Will we continue to start school before Labor Day?
  • Have we ever considered a year-round or balanced calendar where the school year is chunked into 9-week quarters, each followed by 3 weeks off, and with a summer break of 6 weeks?

These are all great questions and filled with many nuances, complexities and different viewpoints.

Our school board policy EL-8 District Calendar sets our charge for developing a calendar.  Bellingham Public Schools and the Bellingham Education Association, our teachers’ association, develop our school calendar through negotiations.  It was through our negotiations that we were able to create our calendars from 2014-2018. We have one more year left of this type of calendar for 2017-18, and we’ll soon be discussing our options for future calendars.

We would like to ask you for any thoughts you might have to help us as we think through our future calendars. In the past when we’ve surveyed on the topic of the school year calendar, we often get a wide range of opinions, and we expect that may happen again. We will carefully review and consider all of the feedback, recognizing that we will not be able to develop school year calendars that please everyone.

Our School Year Calendar: Then and Now

We want to remind families and staff what our calendar used to look like and why we have made changes over the last few years:

First, our goal has been to increase quality instructional time for our students.  We know that if we have outstanding teachers providing quality instruction, then within reason, the more time teachers have teaching, the more learning for our students. Back in 2010 when we started making some significant changes to our calendar (click here to view the Retro calendar):

  • Kindergarten students were half-time, coming to school only every other day. Today, they come every day.
  • K-2 students went to school 5 hours per day and grades 3-5 went 6 hours per day. Today, all elementary students attend 6.5 hours per day.
  • Grades K-2 did not receive music or physical education instruction taught by specialists. Today, they all do.
  • We had many more early dismissals, including a large number around Thanksgiving to provide time for conferences. We have reduced early dismissals at middle school from 17 to 10 and high school from 12 to 2. Elementary early dismissal was and continues to be weekly to allow time for teacher planning, collaboration and parent engagement.
  • In summary, if you are an elementary student now in 2017 vs 2010, you receive approximately 30 more weeks of instruction during your elementary school years (K-5).

Second, our goal has been to increase our support to our teachers by allowing them dedicated time to do the professional work that is necessary, in addition to teaching students.  This includes time for planning, assessing, collaborating, and communicating with families.  Our current calendar (click here to view) allows more time for these activities to occur. If we were to reduce the number of staff learning days, what would happen?  Well, teachers would still need to plan, assess, collaborate and communicate with families.  But instead of doing these on staff learning days, they would use other strategies.  What strategies?  We would look at the strategies we had before our calendar improvements, including:

  • Going back to converting student days to teacher work days, moving from 180 instructional days to say 177
  • Increasing the number of early dismissals
  • Reducing the length of the student day
  • Increasing the use of substitutes

Decreasing the number of substitutes is actually a third goal of our current calendar.  We have reduced by 50 percent the amount of substitutes we use to pull teachers out for professional development.  While we have wonderful substitutes, that strategy comes with a cost. The classroom teacher has to write lesson plans, the actual instruction is obviously not the same with a sub, and when the teacher returns, it takes time to assess what occurred and determine how to proceed.

An additional benefit of our current calendar is what happens with snow days.  When there were no Staff Learning Days (Purple Fridays) built into the calendar, and we had snow days, one of our only options was to add days to the end of the school year.

In summary, these are some of the main reasons we have our current calendar – to increase instructional time, better support teachers, reduce substitutes and allow for greater flexibility when school is canceled.

Why have we been starting school before Labor Day? The main reason we have been starting before Labor Day is that with Staff Learning Days, the school year gets extended, and families and staff want to get out as early in June as possible. Another reason is that it helps front load more quality instructional time in August and September for our students, similar to their peers across the country.

Ok…so what about this year-round or balanced calendar (click here to view a conceptual balanced calendar)?  What’s that all about? Students who are enrolled in a year-round school attend school the same number of days as students on a traditional calendar schedule. A year-round school calendar is organized into 9-week quarters.  Typically, students attend school for 9 weeks, then have 3 weeks off.  Then another 9 weeks and 3 weeks off.  Then 9 more weeks and 3 weeks off.  The final quarter has 9 more weeks but then is followed by a 6-week summer break.

Some of the benefits include:

  • Reducing a long summer break where students can forget key learning
  • Providing time during the 3 week breaks for students to catch up when behind or accelerate when needed
  • Improving scheduling/costs of travel (i.e. family trips during off season…cheaper airline/hotel)
  • Allowing for staff professional development/planning/collaboration during the 3 week breaks
  • Reducing stress of students and staff by having more regular breaks (every 9 weeks) versus building up waiting for winter or summer breaks

Some of the challenges include:

  • Scheduling athletics/activities during the breaks
  • Having a shortened summer break
  • Navigating scheduling challenges for parents who work in another school district or higher education, if the breaks don’t align

So that’s our school calendar 101!  We’d like to now gather your feedback through this survey by noon June 6, 2017 as we spend the 2017-18 school year exploring options through negotiations.

You can also blog with Superintendent Greg Baker on this topic if you have questions and wonders.

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