The headaches of planning a school year to suit all


CALENDAR-makers have a hard job. Not the ones who select the changing monthly pictures that adorn our walls and desks. Not the computer geeks who easily punch in a chart as the mood strikes them.

Not even the people who make an extra effort to inform us, as my 1999 model does, that Feb. 5 is Waitangi Day in New Zealand (even though that would be Feb. 4 in Maryland because of crossing the International Dateline.)

I mean the calendar-makers who are actually schedule-makers. They establish the unrelenting calendar of events for untold institutions and organizations. They seldom please everyone. Even though there may be perfunctory recognition of their exertions, they typically join the Rodney Dangerfield Club, with no respect.

Consider the habitual whiners on the Orioles and other sports teams who always find some fault with the season schedule. Too many games in too short a period, too much travel, too few games in too long a period. You know the routine; it's part of the game.

Then there are the school calendar-makers.

You don't know what grief can be until you try to draft a school-year calendar that suits children, their parents, teachers and staff, bus drivers, the county school board, state and federal governments, day-care providers and the myriad other public and private interests with a stake in the specific days and hours of the public education system.

I, critic

Yes, I have been among the carpers, the critics. I've had sound reason to critique the school calendar. The arguments have been intended to improve the product.

Still, we should all acknowledge that no calendar is perfect, that the manipulation of a single time element results in dislocation of other elements. The fact is that calendar-makers have a very tough job.

Now to the Carroll County school calendar for next year.

There was much justifiable criticism that the school year was planned to start too early, two weeks before Labor Day. That was changed by the school board, which rescheduled the opening of classes to one week before that September holiday.

Not a perfect solution, by any means, but a gesture in the direction of reason.

(Especially galling was the repeated refusal of officials to acknowledge that school buildings are more uncomfortable in mid-August than in mid-June. And teachers' insistence that classroom attention disappears right after Memorial Day, but not in mid-summer.)

The school system apparently found a way to accommodate student participation in the 4-H and Future Farmers competitions at the Maryland State Fair, which ends on Labor Day. Again, it's not perfect, but most of the objections were met in a spirit of understanding -- as well they should be in a county that prizes agricultural traditions.

That left the millennium calendar with another big problem. More than half of the school-year weeks -- 23 of 41 -- were shortened by days with early dismissals or late starts, creating havoc for parents and transportation schedules.

The board dutifully tried to address those very important concerns. With some shifting and crunching and squeezing, school administrators came up with a 1999-2000 calendar that is designed to eliminate weeks with short days.

For which Solomonic endeavors, the administration and board (unrealistically) expected universal praise.

Many parents were appreciative. But not the elementary school teachers, who saw their weekly planning time cut back. As in most school systems, elementary teachers have more hours of required classroom time than teachers in upper grades, who can more easily arrange a "free" period to plan lessons.

Parents vs. teachers

Teachers accused parents of requiring the education system to serve as a baby-sitter. Parents accused teachers of being selfish and more concerned with protecting their short work-year.

With not a lot of time to continue the unending debate, the school system abandoned further change to the public calendar and turned to adjustments in the internal staff calendar.

To provide elementary school teachers with the planning time they lost, the Carroll County system has decided to assign new teachers as "floaters" to fill in for their colleagues a half-hour a week. Those seven additional elementary teachers were hired to help reduce class sizes and improve education. Now class sizes will surely increase (as more children enroll in elementary school) when the new year begins in August.

That will undoubtedly provoke some parents and taxpayers to call for more revisions to the next school calendar.

C. Scott Stone, a county school board member since 1992, offers his insights in a letter at right. One of his ideas is to extend the teacher work year, not classroom days, and increase teacher pay.

Let's try to schedule that topic for further discussion.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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