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. 

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”

chancellor chat

Chancellor Betty Rosa hits back on criticism that New York is abandoning education reform

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York has moved sharply away from innovative education reforms with “bewildering and humbling speed.” That’s what Robert Pondiscio of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute wrote in an op-ed posted earlier this month on the organization’s website.

Here in New York City, he writes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ushering in the “bad old days” by pumping money into struggling schools and relaxing school discipline.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials, after trying to pack too many reforms into a short period of time, have largely backed away from education reform. That coupled with the growing opt-out movement and the departure of New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Pondiscio wrote, spurred the end of an “era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York.”

New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa hit back Thursday with her own piece for the Fordham Institute, saying that she “could not disagree more.” She argues that focusing on high-stakes testing is not synonymous with having high standards — and that while her standards take a different form, they are no less rigorous.

For example, she cites the Board’s decision to jettison the controversial Academic Literacy Skills Test as part of teacher certification. While Pondiscio blasts the move, Rosa says New York’s certification process remains among the country’s most stringent. “We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants,” she writes.

Her op-ed is part of a broader push by the Board of Regents to articulate a new vision of accountability that moves away from a strong focus on New York state’s much-maligned 3-8 math and English tests. She and the Regents seem eager to convince critics that those changes do not, in the end, represent a watering down of the goals the state sets for its students.

“We need an opposite narrative,” Rosa said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. She sees her job as not simply setting high bars, she said, but more importantly, “building the steps” to help students succeed.