Saturday school is out. Memphis district lays out options for school year calendar.

Parents and students walk to Delano Optional School in Memphis on the first day of school last year. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

After pushback from teachers and school board members, Saturday school is out as an option to help Memphis students catch up after missing 44 days of school because of coronavirus concerns. 

Instead, Shelby County Schools leaders are considering other options for the 2020-21 school year calendar, including adding an extra hour to the school day, shortening holidays, and extending the school year. 

Districts nationwide are weighing ways to make up for instructional time that was lost while school was closed this spring. The closures are expected to have a lasting effect on students because of the unprecedented disruption to schedules. 

“Doing nothing is not an option, neither is it an effective strategy,” Superintendent Joris Ray told school board members during Tuesday’s committee meeting. “We wanted to provide multiple strategies and paths.” 

The calendar options range in cost from $4 million to $67 million to pay employees for extra time worked. A teacher survey on the calendar options is expected to go out later this week, said Deputy Superintendent Angela Whitelaw.

The options include:

  • 175 days with an extra hour every day would add 25 extra days: $67 million
  • 175 days with an extra hour in the first semester would add 12 extra days: $34 million 
  • 175 days with five optional half days for students during fall break: $7 million 
  • 175 days with three optional half days for students during spring break: $4 million 
  • 185 days with shorter fall and winter breaks: $14 million 
  • 190 days with shorter fall and winter breaks: $28 million

Three other options would offer fall and/or spring break instruction at 36 sites across the city for students struggling the most in reading and math. Whitelaw said the district’s favored option was 190 days, but said teacher feedback prompted them to bring more options to the board. State law requires at least 180 days of instruction. 

The district is relying on April projections from NWEA, a test-making nonprofit organization, that predicted students will come back to school with 50% more learning loss than they would normally after the summer. The projections, based on a sample of five million students who took the organization’s tests in 2017 and summer learning loss research, show that students will forget more math than reading, and there would be more learning loss for older students.

Some educators have questioned such grim predictions because many teachers were close to finishing new material and were about to start reviewing to prepare for state tests when districts closed in March. Board member Shante Avant echoed that skepticism.

“We all know that once testing happens, then there’s nothing else that’s happening at school except celebrations and end-of-the-year parties,” she said. “So does this 10 days actually help or support students more so than the dates that we already would have?”

Optional half or full days on some Saturdays throughout the school year were part of four options Ray brought to the board Tuesday. But board members said it would not be fair to teachers and students who observe weekly religious activities on Saturdays, such as Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

“We always go out of our way to respect other people and their holidays and beliefs,” said board member Billy Orgel, who is Jewish. 

Adding an hour to the school day is a key strategy in the district’s Innovation Zone, created to improve low-performing schools. Whitelaw said the practice could be expanded to all schools to help students catch up more quickly. 

The district is not considering reducing the number of teacher training hours, Whitelaw told board members. Shelby County Schools requires more training hours than the state in an effort to boost student learning. But some teachers have said a reprieve would be helpful this fall as teachers take on more responsibilities in post-coronavirus schooling.

The school board is expected to vote on a calendar at its June 30 meeting. 

You can view the district’s presentation below:

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