School ideas go to board

The Baltimore Sun

Closing schools on Yom Kippur and exploring a year-round calendar are among several ideas swirling around for the 2008-2009 school calendar, designed by the district's calendar committee.

Those ideas, as well as other scheduling recommendations, were part of an effort to plan that school year's start and end, holidays and dates for professional development.

"This is a proposed calendar," Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said of the document submitted to board members, who are scheduled to vote on the item in October.

In the coming weeks, the school system will solicit comments from staff, parents and the community, Ecker said.

The 2008-2009 calendar shares "a lot of similarities" with the one approved for the coming year, said Jimmie Saylor, director of human resources. The committee relied on such factors as public feedback and consistency with scheduling in previous years to draft the calendar, Saylor said.

Significant changes include recommendations to close schools Oct. 9, which coincides with Yom Kippur; increasing the number of emergency-closing days to six from five; adding a day to winter and spring breaks; and eliminating the April parent-teacher conferences in elementary, middle and high schools.

The committee also weighed the pros and cons of creating a calendar with nine-week quarters separated by two-week breaks, but relegated that idea to further discussion, which some board members expressed an interest in having at a later date.

Several districts close Oct. 9, which is also Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Saylor told board members last week, explaining the committee's suggestion.

"To be consistent with the jurisdictions near us ... we would at least like you to consider" following suit, said Saylor, who chairs the calendar committee. "We do get that recommendation from the citizens."

Board members voiced their concerns about some aspects of the calendar, particularly the October recommendation.

Member Patricia Gadberry questioned the legality of closing schools for a religious holiday. "It's been my understanding ... that we had to have a reason to close that is secular," Gadberry said, such as low attendance rates on a particular date.

The school system's legal counsel, Rochelle S. Eisenberg, confirmed that point.

"You are precluded from closing on a religious holiday ... unless there is an adverse impact on attendance," said Eisenberg, an attorney with Hodes, Pessin & Katz. "You cannot close simply because it is a religious holiday."

Eisenberg added that she couldn't recall the school system ever basing a decision on what other districts are doing.

There was no significant difference in attendance on Yom Kippur, Saylor said. A report on staff and student absences on selected religious holidays in 2005 showed that student absences on Yom Kippur were about the same as a randomly selected day in September.

Board Vice President Cynthia Foley said she'd like to see the recommendation removed, as she doesn't approve of the idea.

"We have enough weeks in our school year that aren't full weeks," Foley said. "It's important that we get those full weeks in there -- especially at the elementary level."

Although not an official recommendation, Saylor said, the calendar committee also noted a "subject that seems to come up every year": switching to a year-round calendar.

Board members considered exploring the concept further, after Ecker said he could have a committee look into it.

"I, for one, would not go for it at all," Foley said, citing concerns about the expense, teacher burnout and the fate of summer school. She said she would need an "astronomical" amount of information and data to prove "beyond a shadow of a doubt" that such an experiment was worthwhile.

"Every single person in this county would have to be a part of this decision," Foley said.

The two-week breaks between quarters would serve as periods for intervention, Ecker said.

Board President Gary Bauer said he thought the time had come to start looking at year-round school as a possibility.

"I'm a firm believer in this process," Bauer said. He asked fellow members to consider developing a committee for that subject.

While they didn't necessarily advocate the concept, board members Gadberry and Jeffrey Morse said they didn't see harm in looking into the matter.

Student representative Rachel Van Parys agreed, saying that having additional information could help inform her and her peers on a topic that often leaves them "torn" as well.

Because of member Barbara Shreeve's absence, the board postponed making a decision.

In the meantime, Gadberry encouraged the community to send in their thoughts on the calendar.

"That's how we get good input," she said.

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