Schools debate start dates

Herald Staff Writer

Routine approval of school calendars has sparked debate at two recent school board meetings in the county.

Each year, school corporations designate committees comprised of teachers, administrators, parents and students to create a calendar for the upcoming school year. The board is then required to approve the schedule before it becomes official. At Wednesday’s meeting of the Southeast Dubois School Board, board members and Superintendent Rick Allen talked through the reasons for beginning the 2014-15 school year Aug. 8 instead of moving the start date back to meet parents’ wishes.

Allen explained that several roadblocks in 2014 will prevent the corporation from changing to a later start day.

“Every calendar is unique. Every year is different,” he told the board.

In 2015, Jan. 2 ­— which normally would be the day local students return to class after Christmas vacation — falls on a Friday. That means that calendar committees had to weigh the options of sending kids back for a single day or waiting until the following week to begin the second semester Jan. 5.

Greater Jasper Consolidated Schools Superintendent Tracy Lorey explained to board members at a meeting in late October that losing Jan. 2 as a school day means the calendar must start earlier in August.

“The way Christmas falls with the start of the new year, it just made it a little bit more challenging to try to get all of those requirements squeezed in,” she said.

The Greater Jasper School Board reluctantly pushed through a calendar that has a school start date of Aug. 7, 2014. Many board members expressed concerns that the day is too early for students to return to the classroom after summer break.

“Parents seem to think we’re starting too early in the year. That is an issue that is coming to me,” board member Ken Schnaus said at the Jasper meeting. “I don’t know how you fix that.”

Schools must include five snow makeup days and spring, fall and Christmas breaks in each calendar.
Students and parents also prefer to finish the school year before the annual graduation ceremony for seniors. This year, at the request of community members, both Greater Jasper and Southeast Dubois schools are including an extra November holiday on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

“I will say that a lot of families will travel and we’ll have high absenteeism on days preceding a holiday like Thanksgiving,” Lorey said.

She added that it is important for local schools to coordinate their annual schedules as much as possible, because many of them share special programming opportunities like Jasper High School’s health occupations classes and Southridge High School’s automotive mechanics course.

Jasper board member Bernie Vogler said he is worried that many of the school corporations are creeping too far into early August with start dates.

“I would be concerned about other schools in the area if they decide to start even earlier,” Vogler said at the meeting. “If the other school districts are going to go a different direction, I think we need input in that because I don’t know that we want to do a calendar where we start Aug. 1. I think that’s a red flag.”

Though some local districts had planned to explore the option for a balanced calendar —  a school schedule that spreads the 180 required days out over a longer period of time and includes longer fall, Christmas and spring breaks in between — Lorey said Jasper has found that the option might not be economically advantageous. Board members Mike Braun and Ken Schnaus responded that they hope the calendar committee will begin taking parent concerns into account when they plan the 2015-16 schedule.

Southeast Dubois board President Kent Uebelhor said the same thing Wednesday evening, though he recognizes that if the school year begins later in August it may be too tough to keep snow days in place, give students an extra Thanksgiving holiday and keep kids out of class on Good Friday. The corporation will begin school in 2014 on the first Thursday in August, as it did this year.

“When the state says you’re going 180 days, there are only so many days we can pick,” he said. “We toyed around with moving that start date back, but if you don’t plan any makeup days at all in the second semester, you may be going (into) June like we did afew years ago. Next year, whether we can move it back a few days or not, we’ll have to see.”

The North Spencer School Board approved a 2014-15 calendar last month with a start date of Aug. 13. Southwest Dubois and Northeast Dubois schools do not yet have next school year’s schedule in place.

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