Change in school year riles some parents

Teachers and students at Laguna Beach's four public schools will see a change in the upcoming school calendar — a move that has upset some parents.

Laguna Beach Unified School District board members approved the change, in which school will start before Labor Day and a week-long break will be given for Thanksgiving, as a one-year pilot, at their board meeting Jan. 22. District officials mailed a letter written by Supt. Sherine Smith to parents following the meeting.

Students at Top of the World, El Morro, Thurston and Laguna Beach High will start school on Aug. 29 and end June 19, 2014, according to the letter.

The move caused some ire among a few parents who attended a joint meeting of the City Council and school district Jan. 29 in Council Chambers. A couple of parents who spoke during the public comment period said they were disappointed with what they call a hasty decision by the district. Cindy Cohn attended the Jan. 29 meeting and doesn't agree with the change. Cohn has two children who attend Top of the World.

"A lot of people were blindsided," Cohn said. "[The district] claims there was a main communication tool."

Smith's letter said a survey went out to parents and teachers before winter break to seek input on the earlier start date. Thirty-nine percent of parents who responded preferred the earlier start date while 61% favored the post-Labor Day start, district director of human resources and communication Gerald Vlasic wrote in an e-mail. Sixty-six percent of teachers who responded preferred an earlier start date while 34% favored beginning school after Labor Day.

Cohn said she receives a weekly "e-blast" from Top of the World Principal Ron LaMotte and weekly messages that arrive home with her children. She said there was no mention of the calendar change in either the "e-blast" or weekly messages. She received Smith's letter on Jan. 24 and e-mailed a copy to the Coastline Pilot.

"I wish I knew about the public forums," Cohn said. Cohn is concerned about the number of breaks — mid-winter (Feb. 18 through 22 this year), spring break, two weeks during Christmas and New Year's and now a week during Thanksgiving — and the toll such recesses take on her children and getting them back into the routine following time-off.

Smith gave four reasons for the change in her letter. The first one focused on the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving break. Smith said there is a large absence rate on those days and the frequent interruptions of parents taking their kids out of school during the day cause disruptions for teachers.

Vlasic's e-mail to the Coastline Pilot included Smith's perspective on the calendar change.

"We respect the professional opinion of our teachers, who believe starting school on Au. 29 will result in a better learning environment for students," Smith said.

A second reason said that teachers prefer starting school the Thursday before Labor Day because it provides a smoother transition and gives them a chance to ease into introductory lessons.

A third reason was families prefer a full week off for Thanksgiving.

The fourth reason focused on athletics. Smith said in the letter that the pilot calendar better aligns Laguna Beach Unified with other county school districts who have athletic competitions and practices that begin in August.

Laguna Beach City Councilwoman Toni Iseman taught for 30 years and understands both sides.

"It's hard to teach a lesson when half the kids are gone," Iseman said. "I also understand, as someone in the audience said, the students end the school year late and there are big chunks of time [breaks throughout the year]."

Iseman pointed out that buses could face challenges maneuvering through the city the few days before Labor Day because the city still has vacationers during that time.

The district will survey parents and staff to gain feedback on the new calendar and analyze attendance data as to whether the "net effect was positive."

Vlasic said the district has not had a pre-Labor Day start in the past 15 to 20 years.

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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