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News Education Petition challenges legality of alternative school calendar

A tourism and business lobby group and a Highlands parent have filed a petition with the State Office of Administrative Hearings challenging the legality of the recently approved alternative calendar for Macon County Schools which sets the start date for the 2011-2012 school year on Aug. 4, three weeks earlier than last year.

Sabrina Hawkins, a mother of three Highlands School students, is seeking an injunction against the State Board of Education to withdraw its approval of a calendar waiver which will allow the school district to begin classes three weeks before Aug. 25, the statewide mandated start date. Hawkins and her co-petitioner in the case, an organization called Save Our Summers – N.C. based in Wake County, claim that in granting Macon County's waiver request for the alternative calendar, the SBE “failed to comply with its statutory obligations, failed to follow proper procedure, and blatantly ignored the merits of the requests.”

On April 7, the SBE approved an alternative calendar for the entire district which sets the early start date and includes two, week-long, mid-semester “intercession” periods to provide added help for students who are falling behind as well as enrichment opportunities for other students.

In an email from Save Our Summers' president, Louise Lee, sent out to members of the Macon County school board, Lee said, “It is clear that Macon County's proposed new school calendar violates North Carolina state law in a number of ways.” She asserts that the school calendar law allows no system-wide exemptions for educational purposes. Furthermore, she claims that though the county's application for an educational purposes waiver describes it as a “year-round” calendar (which is exempt under the law), Macon County's alternative calendar does not qualify as year-round.

In addition to violating state law, Lee claims that the early start date places a hardship on Macon County citizens, saying that the new calendar, announced on April 10, was “sprung upon them at the last minute.” She notes that families plan their vacations well in advance, and that “students, and teachers as well, that have contracted to work well into August are in a serious bind.”

Schools superintendent, Dr. Dan Brigman, says that the goal of the county's request for a waiver to establish a non-traditional calendar was to improve student achievement, both through the inclusion of the remedial/enrichment intercession periods each semester and by ending the first semester before the Christmas vacation. He notes that before the calendar law was established in 2004, proscribing Aug. 5 as the earliest start date and June 10 as the latest ending date, local school boards were free set their own calendars.

“The calendars for each of our schools have been established to try to improve teaching and learning,” Brigman said when asked about the petition. “Given that, I am confident that our non-traditional calendar will remain intact, and we're planning accordingly this summer.”

Brigman does not deny that regaining local control of the school calendar has been a stated objective of the school district for years. “The [state mandated] calendar creates barriers to student achievement that we are trying to address through this non-traditional approach,” he said. “Ending the first semester before Christmas, that's going to be a tremendous benefit for our children who are required to take an exam on content covered in the first semester.”

“The calendars for each of our schools have been established to try to improve teaching and learning ... Given that, I am confident that our non-traditional calendar will remain intact, and we’re planning accordingly this summer.” — Superintendent Dan Brigman

Macon County, and other counties in Western North Carolina, contend with weather patterns, terrain, and student academic needs that are totally different from the Piedment or North Carolina coastal districts, Brigman says. “I will always have the philosophy and the belief that local boards of education know best about what our students and our county needs in terms of school calendars,” he said.

Many counties in Western North Carolina yearly apply for and obtain weather-related calendar waivers, but Macon County has always fallen short of the criteria established to qualify for such an exemption. After two particularly harsh winters, however, the district began to explore other ways it might be able to establish its own calendar. “What we saw this year was kids taking exams on content from September in mid February,” said Brigman, adding the situation creates a serious burden on the county in a competitive educational environment in which schools are forced to meet state and federal progress goals.

The non-traditional calendar was the overwhelming choice of teachers at schools around the county who voted on alternative calendars during the selection process earlier in the year (the final vote was 249 to 150 in favor of the non-tradtional calendar). In addition, Brigman notes that the calendar was also unanimously supported by the superintendent's Parents Advisory Board, as well as student and business advisory boards. The county's Board of Education approved the calendar at their March meeting in a split 3-to-2 vote.

Hawkins says that she has since spoken to many parents and teachers who are not happy with the new calendar. “When the vote occurred, I'm not sure that the teachers fully understood what they voted for,” said Hawkins, “and for that matter, I'm not sure that the school board fully understood what it voted for ... They didn't have time to think about it, and I think they made a rushed decision without considering all of the facts.”

Hawkins says that the calendar change, particularly the earlier start date, will burden her family just as it will many other families. “We always take our vacation after Aug. 10, and if this goes through, that's just not going to happen.”

Hawkins is also skeptical about the educational benefits of ending the first semester before Christmas. “I have challenged the board and superintendent to show me some historical data going back to before 2004, where when we had an earlier school start and the semester ended before Christmas break, that those test results were higher,” she said. “That's what they say, but I have seen no historical data to support it.”

She added, “My kids do fine, though I can't speak for other families.”

The two school board members who voted against the calendar in March, Gary Shields and Jim Breedlove, agree that setting the new start date in April gave little time for students and families to prepare for the adjustment. Shields, a long-time educator and former principal at Franklin High School, says he would still vote no for two reasons. First, he questions the educational value of the intercession periods.

“Number two, I just felt like there was a time crunch that the board was under,” Shields said. “We had to approve this on a Monday night because they had to have it submitted on a Tuesday.”

Shields says he is also concerned because of wording in the waiver request that says the application is for a “year-round” calendar. He says the board voted on a non-traditional calendar, not a year-round calendar, and feels the wording could be misleading.

According to Brigman, however, the waiver approved for the county is for a non-traditional calendar. “It is not a year-round calendar,” he explained. “We had originally been pursuing a year-round calendar, but the calendar we developed is in line with a non-traditional model.”

Brigman says that the school system has been sensitive to the fact that the shortened summer may inconvenience some families. “We know there are pre-arranged vacation plans, and we encourage parents to talk with their school principals regarding those plans.” He added that this will be the only summer that the vacation will be abbreviated, as classes will get out three weeks earlier next May.

Meanwhile, SOS is asking the local board of education to consider voting to rescind the new calendar for 2011-2012. “The last thing our group wants is to have to go through a tedious litigation process, causing financial strain on all parties involved,” wrote Save Our Summers president Lee.





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