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. 

First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.

Test Results

Newark’s PARCC scores inch up, setting baseline for new superintendent

PHOTO: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images

Newark students made process on the state English tests this spring, while growth stalled on the math tests, according to results released by the district. The results provide a new baseline that the district, which is back under local control after decades of state oversight, will likely be judged against in coming years.

Just over 34 percent of Newark students who took the 2018 PARCC English tests met or exceeded state expectations — a 3.1 percentage point increase over the previous year. Students in grades 3 to 11 took the computerized tests; every grade except for fifth and eighth made gains in English.

In math, 23.2 percent of students hit the state’s benchmark. That is 0.6 percentage points higher than in 2017 — a smaller growth rate than in previous years. The results were uneven: While some grades made gains, students in grades 3, 6, and 8 saw declines, as did students who took the geometry test.

Statewide, 55 percent of students met grade-level expectations in English and 42 percent did so in math. Students must score at a level 4 or above on a 1-5 scale to be considered performing on grade level.

In February, after 22 years of state control, Newark’s local school board was put back in charge of the district, just weeks before students sat for the tests. The results will now become the yardstick against which observers will measure student progress under local control and assess the new superintendent, Roger León, a veteran Newark education who took over in July.

“We have a lot of work to do,” León said at a board meeting in August where officials shared some highlights from the results. (Chalkbeat filed a public-records request to get the district-wide pass rates.)

In a recent public radio interview, León added that the test scores show that teaching needs to improve.

“The instruction in the classroom can’t be the same,” as it has been, he said on WBGO. “Because our student achievement data is suggesting that that’s not really good.”

State policymakers are currently debating the future of the PARCC tests, which students first took in 2015. Gov. Phil Murphy has vowed to replace the controversial tests, but some lawmakers have expressed concerns about his plan.

The state sent this year’s PARCC results to districts, which have shared them with families, but it has not yet posted them online. Last year, they were available to the public on Sept. 28. A state education department spokesman said Wednesday that he expects the school and district-level results to be posted “in a matter of days.”

After the results were published last year, Newark sent out a press release touting the district’s progress. The release noted that Newark made larger gains in math and English than the state overall. This year, the district’s gains were larger than the state’s in English but smaller than the state’s in math.

Newark’s test scores have become the site of a proxy battle between critics and defenders of the controversial policies that transformed the district in recent years. Under former state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, some neighborhood schools were shuttered, more charter schools were opened, and a new teachers contract that tied teacher pay partly to student test scores.

Last year, a team of Harvard researchers tried to measure the impact of those changes. They found that Newark students’ annual growth on the state tests initially declined after the reforms kicked off in 2011. By 2016, however, students were making greater gains in English than they had before the reforms. In math, their growth was no better or worse than before the changes.

Whatever factors drove Newark’s test scores to where they are today, Superintendent León will now be expected to move them higher. Indeed, along with perfect attendance, León has set a goal of every student passing the state tests — an impossibly high bar that no large urban district has ever cleared.

As León tries to boost scores, he must contend with wide achievement gaps between groups of students. For instance, on the English tests, white students outperformed black students by 26 percentage points, general-education students outperformed special-education students by 29 points, and English-proficient students outperformed those still learning the language by 26 points.

“We actually have a strategy on how to reduce the gap and improve achievement,” León said at the Aug. 28 board meeting. “We’re not afraid of the data.”

Graphics by Sam Park.