Apodaca: School calendar debate continues

Summer is finally here.

Newport-Mesa wrapped up the school year at the end of last week, which means that once again our local public school kids are starting their summer break later than just about everyone else in the known universe.

Most of the time, school calendars are taken for granted. We grow accustomed to how it's done in our neck of the woods, and only take notice when school gets in the way of other things we'd like to do with our families.

Occasionally, controversies emerge, such as the minor fiasco over this year's scheduling of a school day on Monday, Jan. 2 — a national holiday. And each year as summer draws near, grumblings of discontent can be heard as other districts and private schools start their breaks before Newport-Mesa.

But if there's ever a good time to pay closer attention to the district's schedule, now is it.

The Newport-Mesa calendar is currently set in stone through the 2013-14 school year. But the district just recently started the long process of determining the calendar for the following three years.

That means if you want things to change, this is your chance to get your two cents in.

The effort, which began about a month ago, involves a committee consisting of union, management, student and parent representatives. Committee members will study the Orange County Department of Education's recommendations, consult with their various constituencies, and then will draw up a draft, which will be subject to union approval. The proposed calendar will undergo a community comment period before going to the Board of Trustees for a vote.

The entire process is overseen by John Caldecott, the district's executive director of human resources.

Each time around, the calendar negotiations present a juggling act of competing interests and opinions, and what ultimately emerges is a best attempt at compromise, Caldecott said.

"There is no perfect calendar," he said. "There's no way to please everybody."

A key example: Newport-Mesa has long set the first day of school as the day after Labor Day. But that puts high school students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses at a disadvantage compared to students in districts that begin earlier.

Since AP testing is conducted nationwide in May, Newport-Mesa students taking AP classes are faced with a heavy load of work over the summer break, and an accelerated schedule during the school year in order to squeeze in the rigorous curricula.

Local students also occasionally run into scheduling conflicts at the other end of the school session. I recall one year, for instance, when my son wanted to participate in a summer enrichment program, but was disappointed because it began in mid-June, while he was still in school.

However, periodic discussions over starting school earlier inevitably run into strong opposition from those who object to requiring students and staff to return during the heat of August, a peak month for family vacations.

"What you usually find," said Caldecott, "is people are committed to the status quo."

Also at issue when considering the school calendar:

•The six non-instructional days scheduled during the school year, which are designated as staff development days. With the school budget under intense pressure, these days could become a point of contention in union negotiations, as they have in other districts.

•The structure of breaks during the school year, particularly the five-day Thanksgiving holiday and Presidents' Week, colloquially known as "Ski Week."

These breaks have become popular family vacation times, but they are not universally loved, since any days off during the school year must be made up elsewhere. Also, the breaks that occur during the school year sometimes don't result in much R&R because many students — particularly the older kids — still have a substantial amount of homework and sports commitments even when school is not in session.

•Ultimately, budgetary concerns will drive all aspects of school planning, the calendar included.

The amount of time spent in the classroom is a hot issue in education these days. A debate is raging over whether California's 180 instructional days — a meager number compared with the 200-plus school days in many nations whose students routinely outscore ours — are setting our kids up for future failure.

Some observers counter that it isn't the number of school days but actual instructional time and the quality of learning that matters, and that's where our attention should be focused. It's a debate that will undoubtedly intensify as we ponder the future of education in our state.

For the noose is tightening fast, and a solution to California's funding crisis is of paramount concern. Already, many districts, facing crushing deficits, are taking advantage of the state's decision two years ago to allow schools to reduce their calendars to 175 days.

So far, Newport-Mesa hasn't resorted to calendar trimming because we've been able to coast on the back of our reserve fund. But that won't be an option much longer.

If another round of state education cuts materializes — and it will, if voters don't pass a tax measure in November — our district will be forced to slash costs, at which point nothing, not even the number of school days, will be safe from the executioner.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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