Back to school

Why does Tennessee start its school year so dang early?

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
In Nashville, school started this year with half day on Aug. 3, while students in Memphis went back on Aug. 8.

For almost all public school students in Tennessee, the dog days of August aren’t spent at the swimming pool or summer camp, but back at school.

Many Tennesseans remember school days when they returned to class on the first day after Labor Day. But beginning in the 1980s, the average start date has crept from early September to closer to July as districts search for ways to boost academic outcomes, as well as to address educational inequity.

This year, nearly all Tennessee districts kicked off school in early August, with the earliest start being July 25 and the latest Aug. 17. State law prohibits school starts before Aug. 1 unless the local school board votes to start earlier — an option taken this year by 14 districts.

While schools in the Northeast generally start school in early September, those in other regions increasingly are returning to class in August. National experts attribute the shift in school calendars to testing. An earlier start date means students have more time to prepare for end-of-year state tests and Advanced Placement exams — and that testing for the first semester can end before students’ winter break.

“Tennessee testing is the first week in May,” explains Joe Bass, spokesman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which resumed classes Aug. 3. “Having as many instructional days before that is going to be a benefit.”

There’s no research on whether Tennessee districts with earlier start dates have consequently higher test scores. But studies do show that the more time kids spend in school in general, the better their chances of academic success.

In a few cases, the shift to an early August start has been aimed at giving students more than the requisite 180 days in school.

Some districts such as Oak Ridge, Alcoa City and Maryville in East Tennessee operate on a “balanced calendar,” with a summer break of eight weeks instead of 12, giving students more short breaks throughout the year. Schools can use some of those breaks as “intersessions” to offer remedial coursework or other academic programs.

District leaders hope this approach protects kids from “summer slide,” learning loss that hits low-income kids especially hard during summer breaks. When Metro Nashville moved to a balanced calendar in 2012, it moved up the district’s start date by a little more than a week, to the first week of August.

Nashville officials emphasized the potential positive impact of the change on the district’s large population of English language learners, whose language skills recede when they’re not at school speaking English. Kids who don’t have regular access to food also benefit from shorter breaks. When federal funds ran out to pay for intersession for Nashville students, the district abandoned its “balanced” calendar. But the early start date stuck. Nashville’s school board has set its annual start date for the Wednesday on or after Aug. 1.

The encroachment of class time on summer days have led to several campaigns from Tennessee’s tourism industry to set a statewide uniform start date after Labor Day. In the 1980s, the owners of the now-defunct Opryland USA theme park in Nashville helped to lead the charge — both because of the tourism revenue lost when kids spend August in school and the teenage labor lost when older students go back to school. However, district leaders balked at the proposed state mandate, successfully arguing that the start of school should be a local matter. Similar unsuccessful campaigns raged as recently as 2013.

But more and more, Tennessee kids can’t imagine August any other way.

Zekiyah Brown, a fifth-grader at East Nashville Magnet Middle School, said she didn’t mind returning to school on Aug. 3. Her mother, Adrienne Hockett, who attended Nashville schools when the school calendar started later in August, doesn’t mind either.

“I was excited,” recalled Zekiyah as she was finishing her school day on Wednesday, “because I get to go to a new school and meet new people.”

How does your district compare to other districts in Tennessee? Check out a spreadsheet from the Tennessee Department of Education on start times:

Note: In Sumner County, most schools started Aug. 8. Union Elementary school, a year-round school, started in July. 

Funding the ATR

Absent Teacher Reserve cost New York City $151.6 million this past school year, far more than previously estimated

PHOTO: Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat

New York City spent $151.6 million in the 2016-17 school year on salary and fringe benefits for teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve, according to numbers recently obtained by Chalkbeat from the city’s Independent Budget Office.

That’s higher than previous estimates on the cost of the ATR — a pool of teachers without permanent positions — which have generally hovered around $100 million. The high cost is no doubt one reason the city is eager to reduce the pool, which included 822 teachers at the end of the school year. Earlier this month, it announced plans to halve that number by placing hundreds into open vacancies in classrooms as of Oct. 15, potentially despite principal’s objections.

The IBO says its numbers come directly from school budgets prepared and provided by the city’s education department, in which ATR costs are included in their own separate lines. Officials in the city’s education department did not dispute the numbers but said they did not know exactly what methodology or point in time the IBO was capturing. “The number, salary, and overall cost of teachers in the ATR pool naturally fluctuates from day to day throughout the school year,” they said.

Teachers are placed into the ATR when their jobs are eliminated or for disciplinary reasons. As of October 2016, there were 1,304 teachers in the ATR pool, according to numbers released by the city last fall. Using the IBO’s estimate, on average each ATR teacher received a total of $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits for the past school year. (By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000). The IBO did not break down salary versus fringe benefits.

David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said he was not shocked to learn that the actual cost of the ATR pool was higher than previously estimated. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “I think the administration has tried to lowball the figure to avoid criticism.”

He noted that the ATR is a problem inherited by Mayor Bill de Blasio from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg — and not an easy one to solve. Still, he added, if the city is already paying as much as $151.6 million, it should consider instead passing a buyout plan with higher incentives for teachers than the $50,000 in severance pay the city is currently offering.

Instead, the city plans to place these teachers in classroom vacancies, where the schools will have to grapple with their salaries instead. While the city provided subsidies to schools hiring from the ATR in the past, under the new policy schools would have to bear the full cost of the new hires.

According to Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president of the city’s principals’ union, if an ATR hire causes a “budgetary restriction” for a principal, the city will work with principals to resolve the issue. He did not provide more details.

The city has vowed to work with schools to find the right fit. “We are reducing the size of the ATR pool with a number of common-sense reforms that drive resources back to schools and ensure qualified teachers are deployed effectively,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said. “These reforms will support the work our schools are doing every day, while also significantly lowering costs.”

technical education

Trio of top NY education officials shows support for career and technical education — and a desire to fix roadblocks

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School

Top city and state education officials descended on Thomas Edison High School in Queens Tuesday afternoon to show support for career-focused education — and discuss roadblocks to its expansion.

Proponents of career and technical education say it helps engage students, encourages graduation and provides a skill that will be useful after high school. But the state’s long and stringent approval process can often be difficult for schools to navigate.

In particular, schools have had trouble in the past finding certified teachers, creating new and emerging programs and taking advantage of a new graduation option that involves career education.

State and city officials on Tuesday indicated they have made some changes to ease the process and are interested in looking for more.

“We [can] try to make sure that we take away those issues that might be stoppers and make it much more feasible for school districts across the state to move [in] this direction,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

In broad strokes, school officials sometimes find the state’s process doesn’t always align with the programs they want to run. In some cases, even nationally recognized programs are not on the state’s radar, said Moses Ojeda, principal of Thomas Edison High School. (Elia indicated that is something the state would look into.)

The desire to spread CTE programs was boosted by a new rule that lets students substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in career and technical education. The problem is, some schools say, the state’s approved exams don’t always match the specific career training schools are offering.

Historically, it has also been difficult for schools to find CTE teachers, though the state has recently made it easier for those with specific career expertise to become teachers.

In sum, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she would like all CTE programs across the city to become official, state-certified programs, but the rules and regulations can make it difficult.

“That’s why we need more help,” Fariña said. A report released Monday also found that English learners were underrepresented in the city’s CTE programs.

If anyone could make the process smoother, it was the group assembled on Tuesday. In addition to the commissioner and the chancellor of New York City schools, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents and several Regents attended the school visit.

“It’s always exciting to be able to walk a building with both the commissioner and the Board of Regents because together we can make things happen,” Fariña said.