Modified Calendar Achieving Mixed Results

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The modified school calendar, widely praised when it was implemented by the Payson Unified School District for the 2001-2002 school year, is now receiving some criticism -- especially at Payson High School.

"At the high school, the reaction is mixed," PHS Principal Phil Gille said. "I think it's been well received at the elementary and middle school levels, but at the high school, there have been some teachers and some students that don't like it for a couple of different reasons."

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The change from the traditional school calender to a modified version allows some sports team members to have extra practice time on non-school days. For the boys track team, Jake Swartwood and Chris Donaldson were able to practice their hurdling skills during a spring break weekday morning when school would normally be in session.

Many who oppose the modified school calendar complain that it doesn't allow them to work in the summer.

"Some of the teachers and students like to work summers and save money for future schooling," Gille said.

A second disadvantage is the fact that student athletes, band members, and others who participate in fall activities don't get a break. PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels, who is generally in favor of maintaining the extended schedule, admits that high school athletes pay a price.

"It does put a little more of a crimp on families of athletes because they can't get away when they'd like," Weissenfels said. "Practice goes on. Games go on."

The modified calendar shortens the summer recess by a few weeks and adjusts some holiday breaks so there are two-week recesses in the fall, at Christmas and in the spring. The result is a schedule that divides the school year into nine-week quarters, with each school session followed by a recess.

PUSD students still attend the same number of school days as under the traditional calendar. A modified calendar differs from a year-round calendar that eliminates the extended summer recess in favor of a series of equally spaced shorter breaks, usually two-weeks in length.

The original impetus for the change from a traditional to a modified calendar was the large number of academic and other benefits that an increasing number of Arizona school districts realized upon adopting a similar calendar. Among them:

  • A positive impact on student achievement;
  • Better pacing resulting in a more continuous flow of instruction. Learning loss is reduced by shortening the traditional three-month summer vacation;
  • Children do not become as restless and bored as during a three-month summer break. Juvenile authorities report that juvenile delinquency is also reduced;
  • More frequent breaks result in increased morale and decreased absenteeism, truancy, vandalism and other behavior problems;
  • Intersessions (remedial classes offered during breaks for students who need extra help) can be used for both remediation and enrichment;
  • Teachers and staff can attend in-service training or work together in mentor programs during intersessions;
  • Educationally disadvantaged students and students with limited English skills show improvement even without increased instructional time during intersessions.

So far, Weissenfels admits, the modified calendar hasn't had much impact on academics or discipline problems. Both Gille and Payson Elementary School Principal Roy Sandoval agree.

"Has it decreased the absentee rate?" Sandoval asked. "It's hard to say, but I'm not sure it's improved attendance. Our student achievement is going up. Is (the modified calendar) a factor? I don't know -- you can't isolate it because we're doing a lot of other things (to improve achievement)."

One prospective benefit the modified calendar has lived up to is better retention.

"The biggest thing I've heard from teachers is that kids do seem to forget less," Weissenfels said. "That part is a positive. People do seem to enjoy and feel fresher after those couple week breaks."

Sandoval says the modified calendar also permits teachers to pace their students better.

"It creates really clear lines of demarcation," he said. "You can push really hard for nine weeks knowing you're going to take a break."

As part of an ongoing evaluation process, Sandoval polled parents and school personnel at the beginning of the 2002-03 school year.

"The survey indicates that the modified school year is well thought of by parents, teachers and classified personnel," he said. "Relative to the survey, the reasons for the popularity seem to be raised student and teacher morale, positive effect on school climate, and increased student focus."

In the poll, more than 76 percent of PES parents agreed or strongly agreed that the modified calendar is "excellent."

While the extended calendar has not turned out to be the panacea many predicted, it has created enough benefits to be continued -- at least for the time being.

Gille admits that despite its drawbacks at the high school level, more of his teachers are for it than against it.

"It seems like it has stayed fairly popular," Weissenfels said.

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