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EH school calendar hangs in balance

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Eastern Hancock may not have a balanced calendar next school year after all – or at least not a calendar like the other school districts in the county.

All Hancock County schools kicked off a balanced calendar Aug. 1. While the calendar starts school two weeks earlier in the summer, it allows for a two-week break in the fall and another two-week break in the spring. The calendar is called “balanced” because it provides four nine-week grading periods evenly spaced out, and EH teachers have been “overwhelmingly” in support of it, Superintendent Randy Harris said.

While the other school boards in the county approved the balanced calendar for both the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, the EH board has so far approved it only for this school year. Harris asked the group last month to approve an identical calendar for 2013-14, but members were hesitant on Monday.

The two new members in particular said they have been hearing concerns from people in the community.

“I think we live in a unique community. I don’t know that we can really compare ourselves to other people,” said Scott Johnson, who was elected in November. “I don’t feel like we need to be held hostage by other school corporations and do what they do.”

Johnson said he’s talked to roughly 20 people in recent weeks about the change, and concerns ranged from conflicts with the Indiana State Fair to sports teams holding practices during fall break. Some parents, he added, were even concerned about elementary school children waiting too long in hot buses in August for the high school students to board.

Johnson said during the campaign last year that the decision for the balanced calendar was made too quickly, and Monday he still wanted to know more about why it was implemented in the first place.

“I really feel uninformed, I think, and I would really like to know what more people have to say about this,” Johnson said.

Jim Jackson, the other new board member, said he’s talked to roughly a half dozen community members about the calendar. Half of them were in favor of it; the other half were against it. Child care, for example, can be expensive during the two-week break in the fall, Jackson said.

While Johnson made a motion for the superintendent to come back next month with other calendar options, the motion died for a lack of a second. Jackson said he simply wants more time, and the group agreed to make the decision at next month’s meeting.

Board member Tom Younts raised concerns about the balanced calendar in December, saying several families approached him at the beginning of the school year because they felt conflicted attending the Indiana State Fair or the first days of school. The scheduling conflict is critical in rural districts whose students show animals at the fair. EH has a large FFA program and many 4-H’ers; a number of students took time off from school last summer to participate in related activities at the fair.

The State Fair is considered an excused absence, and administrators say most students missed only one or two days to show animals. Those students, they added, are conscientious and were able to catch up on their homework.

But Younts suggested starting school a week later in August. Under that plan, fall break would be reduced to one week.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Two weeks and those kids are brain dead. They don’t remember anything,’” Younts said. “What’s best for student achievement? If we have two weeks in the spring, two weeks in the fall, what are we doing for those kids?”

The other two incumbent board members were fairly quiet on the topic. Terry Jilg voted against tabling the decision, pointing out that teachers are in support of the balanced calendar. President Scott Petry was in favor of tabling the decision and said he’d like to learn whether the school can provide assistance to families that struggle caring for their children during the extended breaks.

School officials have considered the idea of child care or tutoring during fall break to help with remediation, but nothing has been finalized.

The local trend to switch to a balanced calendar began with the Warren Township school district in Marion County, Harris said. The school on the east side of Indianapolis serves career technical students in Hancock County. When the three other school districts in Hancock County talked about making the switch to the balanced calendar, Eastern Hancock went along with the trend partly because special-education students are sent to Greenfield-Central.

New Castle schools, which serve Eastern Hancock’s technical education students, have also switched to a balanced calendar, and Jessica Neill, representative of the EH teachers union, points out that it’s helpful for families if schools have the same calendar.

Harris points out that when he surveyed hundreds of parents a year ago on the balanced calendar, most were in favor of it. Likewise, the teachers like the two-week break in the fall as a way to refresh.

Neill said the energy for teaching has been high this year because of the balanced calendar.

“We have nine weeks to work hard, then we’re going to take a two-week break, then we’re going to work hard for another nine weeks,” Neill said.

In theory, Harris said, a balanced calendar is better for students to retain knowledge. A shorter break in the summer with breaks throughout the school year could mean better testing results as opposed to having a long break in the summer.

But the benefits are anecdotal: Harris said while student test scores this year may hint at what the calendar does for learning, it won’t be scientific because there won’t be a pool of students on a traditional calendar to compare with.

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