Catholic schools mull extended academic calendars

Two weeks after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced it would extend the academic calendar of its 210 elementary schools by 20 days, administrators at local parochial schools said they are assessing how and when to implement the change.

“We are brainstorming what is going to work best for our kids,” said Susan Romero, principal at St. James Elementary and Holy Redeemer Middle School, a joint school with split sites in La Crescenta and Montrose, respectively. “The faculty is excited about it. The majority of our parents are receptive.”

A longer school year would help boost student performance, preparing young people to compete in a technology-driven, global society, Kevin Baxter, archdiocesan superintendent of elementary schools, said this week.

The archdiocese has described the change as a recommendation. But 70% of Catholic schools will have an extended calendar starting in 2011-12, and the goal is to have all the schools move to an extended calendar by the 2012-13 school year, Baxter said.

“We realize that all schools will not make the transition by that time, but we are optimistic that the vast majority of them will,” Baxter said. “The ultimate vision is for 100% of the schools to move to a 200-day academic calendar.”

Archdiocesan schools serve 52,000 elementary and middle school children in three counties, making it one of the largest school systems in California.

The typical American school year — 180 days — is one of the shortest in the world, Romero said. Students could benefit from the extra core instruction or enrichment activities that a longer school year would afford, she said. And the revised calendar would still include between six and seven weeks of vacation time in the summer.

“I think when you look at the balance of six, seven weeks, you minimize some of that brain drain that occurs over the summer,” Romero said. “It is possible we won’t spend as much time reviewing [material] from the prior year.”

As Holy Redeemer and St. James prepare to implement the new calendar in the 2011-12 school year, staff will take into account the increased financial burden on families, Romero said.

“We will certainly work with our families where there is a financial hardship,” she said. “We don’t want anyone to leave Catholic education.”

But not all parochial schools are moving to immediately adopt the extended calendar. June Rosena, principal at St. Robert Bellarmine School in Burbank, said she has outlined a 180-day calendar for the 2011-12 school year, and many of her families have already registered.

The school has notified the archdiocese that it will consider adding additional instructional days starting with the 2012-13 year.

But Robert Bellarmine students already outscore their public school counterparts on standardized tests, Rosena noted, adding that she isn’t convinced that a longer school year would boost enrollment.

“Your best advertisement is personal referrals to your facility, parents and students who are already enrolled,” she said.

Parent input figured significantly into the decision not to add 20 days at St. Finbar School in Burbank starting next year, said Principal Michael Marasco. The school surveyed its parents regarding the change, and followed up Tuesday with an on-site meeting.

“You have to take into account people’s schedules,” Marasco said. “For example, if you have people with means to take their child to a museum over the summer, or do educational things like that, then that child would be benefiting from being with the parents.”

The economy remains weak, and most families need two full-time jobs to sustain themselves, Marasco said, adding that an additional three weeks of tuition would be a concern for some.

The school has to respond within reason to what the parents want, Marasco said, adding that he is glad the school didn’t rush to announce the change.

“The parents have been wonderful about giving us their input in a respectful way,” he said.

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