published Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Hamilton County Schools to rethink fall break

Rick Smith is finishing his first year as superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Rick Smith is finishing his first year as superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Photo by Dan Henry.
Draft Calendars for 2013-2014
Draft Calendars for 2013-2014
Poll
Should public schools eliminate fall break?

BY THE NUMBERS

* Full student days: 175 (up from 172 this year)

* Teacher professional development days: 5 (down from 6 this year)

* Administrative in-service days: 6

* Paid teacher holidays: 5

* Nonpaid teacher holidays: 12

Source: Hamilton County Schools

CALENDAR DRAFTS

* Draft 1

School begins: Aug. 8

School ends: May 28

Fall break: Oct. 21-25

Thanksgiving break: Nov. 27-29

* Draft 2

School begins: Aug. 8

School ends: May 27

Fall break: Oct. 18 and 21 (Friday and Monday)

Thanksgiving break: Nov. 25-29

* Draft 3

School begins: Aug. 16

School ends: May 29

Fall break: None

Thanksgiving break: Nov. 27-29

Source: Hamilton County Schools

Students and teachers will get a few more hours together next year as Hamilton County Schools administrators look to pack three more instructional days into the 2013-14 school calendar.

Officials presented three calendar drafts to the school board last week and soon will put them up for a vote to all Hamilton County Schools employees.

Two of the three drafts propose major changes to the weeklong fall break in October, which has been in place for several years. And it's been a favorite of many county teachers and families.

The board likely will vote on the new calendar in November or December.

All three calendar proposals add three extra days of instruction. That's precious time needed by teachers, officials say, especially given pressure to meet testing benchmarks.

"Teachers are really struggling for time," Superintendent Rick Smith said. "I think teachers are wanting more face-to-face time with kids."

To add three more days, officials will eliminate two half-days that were used for parent-teacher conferences and replace them with a full day off. That adds another day of instruction because half-days count the same as full days.

Student registration day no longer will count as an instructional day. Though the school system usually runs buses that day, many schools hold registration events throughout the summer, and teachers don't spend time teaching students.

Teachers also will lose a professional development day to make way for the third instruction day.

Putting together a calendar is difficult work, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Stacy Stewart said at last week's work session. The tedious process considers many variables, including payroll schedules, holidays, state-mandated student testing dates and creating a balanced split between the first and second semester.

Administrators are soliciting input from teachers and staff, but board members last week signaled they may not choose teachers' favorite option. Some board members asked that parents give input, too.

"We don't have to live and die by what [the teachers] say," said board member Rhonda Thurman.

She said she was worried about the amount of school holidays and breaks throughout the year.

The issue of fall break likely will spur the most discussion because one draft proposes elimination of the calendar mainstay, and another proposes a shortened four-day weekend in October with a full week off the week of Thanksgiving.

But some teachers see that week off in October as crucial because, at that point in the year, students have been in school since August, a long stretch with no break.

"The kids just get really antsy," said Lynda Pickett, who teaches drafting and engineering courses at Ooltewah High School. "There's just a certain amount of time that you can keep that focus with them."

Pickett said she would be fine with a shortened fall break, but not eliminating it altogether. And those three extra teaching days are a welcome addition, she said.

"We need the time with the kids, especially with all the testing and requirements," she said. "You need as many of those days as you can get."

While some families may struggle to make day care or baby-sitting arrangements during fall break, others view it as a much-needed respite.

When her family first moved to Signal Mountain three years ago, Kelly Dibrell said she initially dreaded the October hiatus, wondering how she would entertain her three children during their week off from Nolan Elementary School. But now fall break has become a cherished time for family vacations.

"I do feel with the strenuous academic program that they're involved in that it's nice to have that week break," Dibrell said. "It's a really nice, kind of refreshing charge-your-batteries week for us."

That's tough to get on Thanksgiving even with a full week off because so many people have family commitments.

Pickett said the school board should leave fall break the way it is. In her mind it's not broken, so it doesn't need fixing.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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