, Newburyport, MA

February 5, 2014

Port schools to start Sept. 4 next fall

By Greg Phipps

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Despite expressed reservations from some members, the School Committee voted 6-1 Monday to accept the proposed school calendar for 2014-15.

Under that calendar, the next school year will begin on Thursday, Sept. 4, for students. A staff development day for teachers takes place on Sept. 3. The projected final day of school, not taking into account makeup days for snow, is June 18.

Superintendent Susan Viccaro brought forth a draft for next year, as well as two drafts for 2015-16, saying she wanted to “give parents and teachers the opportunity to plan two years ahead.” The possibility of voting on whether to approve the 2015-16 calendar was discussed, but on the recommendation of committee member Nick deKanter, it was decided that a closer survey of teachers and parents was needed before voting two years ahead.

As for next year’s calendar, the main trouble spot for some committee members, as well as parents, exists with the amount of time set aside — mostly through early release days — for professional development among teachers and staff. Critics of the early release days argue that they’re disruptive and valuable education time is being taken away from the students.

“I understand the difficulty early release days pose for parents, especially, but I feel strongly that professional development is a critical service we need to provide for our educational staff,” Viccaro said.

A total of 10 early release days (one each month) and one full day for staff development are scheduled after the school year begins on Sept. 4.

Assistant Superintendent Angela Bik added that professional development leads to more effective collaboration among teachers, which is a highly stressed element of the state’s Common Core curriculum.

Both deKanter and committee member Bruce Menin talked about the possibility of providing educational-based activities for students in order to compensate for the classroom time lost during the early-release days. Committee vice chairwoman Cheryl Sweeney, a retired teacher, said it was important to provide information that helps the public understand just how beneficial professional development is for both the staff and the schools as a whole.

Committee chairwoman Mayor Donna Holaday was the lone member to vote against adopting the calendar, and was the most ardent in her opposition to the number of early release days.

“I do understand the importance of professional development, but I’m concerned about the disruption this causes in the education of our children,” Holaday said. “Because of that, I just can’t support this calendar.”

Committee member Audrey McCarthy also had reservations, saying the number of scheduled release days makes for “a choppy academic schedule.” She asked how many actual hours were devoted to professional development for teachers and staff during these release days.

Bik said it amounted to two hours and 45 minutes on average and that this time does not include a half-hour for lunch.

Newest committee member Michael Luekens said even though “it’s a tough balance to strike and it does create a choppy schedule,” he supports the early release days for professional development.

Viccaro also added that the partial days used for professional development count toward the required number of 180 school days per year.