, Newburyport, MA

December 27, 2012

Early start to school year

Committee upholds controversial half-days in calendar

By Lynne Hendricks

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Despite growing concerns among parents and some city leaders over the number of early-release days at city schools every year, the scheduled professional days will continue through at least 2015.

A proposal by Mayor Donna Holaday and others to eliminate at least three of the 10 annual half-days was dropped last week in large part due to the objections of the teachers union, which argued that the days were needed to comply with new state teacher evaluations and common core initiatives.

The issue was raised in recent weeks because the School Committee was forced to approve both the 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 school calendars last week in order to plan two upcoming school building projects around vacation schedules.

Eliminating some of the half-days from the calendar had been discussed during early deliberations leading up to the two-year calendar vote.

But last week, School Committee members voted on a schedule that prioritizes beginning the 2013/2014 school year before Labor Day in order to add more construction days to the back end of the academic calendar.

Newburyport Teachers Union President Pat Levitt urged the committee to take early-release days off the table given the concessions teachers were making by altering their contract terms to accommodate the pre-Labor Day start.

“I would like to speak in favor of early-release days, which are critical to different things that are now coming down the pike at us to improve student achievement …,” Levitt said.

Levitt said teachers this year are having to adapt to a new evaluation system that involves adopting new assessment measures and ways of collecting data and tracking student growth, increasing their community involvement and complying with a new common core system.

“We can’t do all of this in the contracted time we have unless we have early-release days to do it,” Levitt said.

She asked the committee to consider how compliant Newburyport teachers have been in working with leadership on writing the new teacher evaluations into their contracts, and the fact that they were willing to allow an early start in 2013 when their contracts stipulate it as a violation of their terms.

“If you take (early-release days) from us, there’s no time,” Levitt said.

With crews scheduled to begin construction of a new Bresnahan Model School building next month, and work slated to start at the Nock/Molin building shortly thereafter, school administrators felt that giving construction crews 11 solid weeks of construction during the summer of 2014 would bring them further to completion by the time kids return to school in September of that year.

Under the calendars adopted, school next year will begin on Wednesday, Aug. 28, and barring any need for snow days, conclude on Friday, June 13. The district would then have 11 weeks to complete construction that’s best done when students are not in session before classes resume the following year after Labor Day, on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014.

School Committee members Steve Cole, Nick deKanter and Audrey McCarthy opposed the plan.

Cole said he disagrees with starting school before Labor Day next year, saying the holiday offers families the last opportunity to get away on vacation and enjoy some of the best summer weather. He said the pre-Labor Day start causes much disruption for families and staff members, while gaining only two days of class time on the calendar.

“Teachers are coming back early, kids are coming back for two days. I just think we could have had a better discussion about it,” Cole said. “You get a few snow days and it’s just going to throw everything off, and there seems to be a lot hinging on this. I think teachers, families and everyone will appreciate just having that last week of vacation as opposed to starting school early. To me, it’s just too choppy.”