Sunday, February 1, 2004

The Denzers' school "family tree" branches off in various directions, with Betsy Denzer's three children -- Gavin, 10, top left; Rachel, 13, right; and Zachary, 15 -- each going to a different school with a different calendar. Zachary attends Roosevelt High School, Rachel is a student at Stevenson Intermediate and Gavin goes to Wilson Elementary.

Doing the
year-round shuffle

Education officials are trying
to standardize calendars to avoid
logistical headaches for families

Betsy Denzer's three children all attend public school, but they have separate school calendars and their vacations don't coincide.

"I have three kids on three calendars, one in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school," she said. "Luckily, I'm mostly a housewife because we have our own business, so my schedule is flexible. But I feel bad for other parents."

She added: "It's a big problem because they have to find sitters. If not, then they have to take the day off or leave the kids at home unattended."

Superintendent Pat Hamamoto's call for a common, year-round calendar in her "State of the Schools" speech to the Legislature last week came as welcome news for families like the Denzers, who have to juggle the varied schedules in Hawaii's public schools.

Since Waihee Elementary on Maui became the first to abandon the traditional calendar in favor of a year-round schedule in 1988, the number of schools following suit has mushroomed to 173 this year, or 60 percent of Hawaii's 284 public schools. The decision is up to individual schools.

While the experiment in local control has proved popular, it has also produced some logistical headaches for families and for the Department of Education. By last year, the schools had come up with more than 100 different calendars, if every day off during the school year is considered, department spokesman Greg Knudsen said.


Last year, the teachers' union agreed to winnow the options down to three year-round calendars, along with the traditional calendar. (Four schools have a separate, multitrack calendar to accommodate a surplus of students.)

Students on the traditional calendar start school Aug. 21, take off two weeks at Christmas and one week in the spring, and finish school June 8. Under the most popular year-round option, students start July 31, take a week off in October, three weeks off at Christmas, two weeks off in the spring, and end school June 9. The total teaching time does not vary among the calendars.

"I think it would be great to have everybody on a standard, year-round calendar," said Denzer, whose 15-year-old son Zachary is on a traditional calendar at Roosevelt High School, while her 13-year-old daughter Rachel and 10-year-old son Gavin go year-round.

"It's fun for them to have time off here and there, to break up the monotony and give them a chance to catch up," she said. "And they don't have such a long break during the summer, so they don't have as much to review when they go back to school."

But some teachers and students count on having a 2 1/2 month break in the summer, or want to use the summer time to take courses or work summer jobs.

Teacher Jan Kawabata said she resisted the idea of year-round school when she was at Wailupe Valley Elementary School.

"At the beginning, I was very reluctant," she said. "But I saw how the students benefited. I think their retention of knowledge is a lot better."

She is now in her third year teaching in town at Kaahumanu School, which has so far rejected efforts to switch the calendar. The teachers' union contract requires that 80 percent of teachers at a school approve of such a change in working conditions.

"Every year we vote on it, but we've not been able to change," Kawabata said. "I think a lot of teachers just enjoy that three-month break. And some people use that period to earn extra money or visit family on the mainland."

The DOE is seeking a common, year-round calendar in its current negotiations with the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents the principals.

HSTA spokeswoman Danielle Lum said the union doesn't have a "hard and fast position" on the issue, although some teachers are concerned it would cut into their time for professional development courses.

"It's negotiable," she said. "If it's going to positively impact student achievement, then by all means we should look at it."

Lei Desha, HGEA field services officer, said her union hasn't taken a formal position either, but will be discussing it with unit leaders next week, in response to Hamamoto's speech.

Hamamoto called the traditional calendar outmoded, saying it reflects "a different age when parents needed their children free to harvest the crops and support the family."

The department considers a year-round calendar more effective academically, with three breaks during the school year that can be used to help ensure no child falls too far behind, and academic quarters that end before those breaks.

A uniform schedule would also be more efficient for payroll and personnel management, Knudsen said. For example, teachers are allocated based on student enrollment, which isn't official until schools starts, but those start days now range over a monthlong window.

"A school starting in mid-July has to wait a long time for any kind of adjustment, and that's very disruptive," Knudsen said.

A standard calendar would also allow youth organizations to plan activities better and help police officers track truants, he said.

But many schools remain unconvinced. While 91 percent of the schools in the Leeward Oahu district have switched to year-round schedules, the highest ratio so far, just 27 percent of schools on Maui have done so, the lowest ratio of any district. Overall, two-thirds of Oahu schools are on modified calendars, 60 percent on the Big Island and 31 percent on Kauai.

Kaiser High School has stuck with the traditional calendar, although the issue keeps coming up at its School/Community-Based Management Council, according to Carl Makino, the parent representative on the council.

"The faculty and students have disagreed with it for a variety of reasons," he said. "Most just don't want to change."

Michael Bataluna, who represents Kaiser teachers on the council, said some argue that studies linking academic achievement to year-round calendars are based on younger students, not those in high school.

Teachers like the traditional calendar because they want to take university courses during the summer to advance professionally, and students also take summer courses to get ahead academically, he said. In some cases, students and staff say they need to take summer jobs.

"Another rationale is that if we do modify our schedule, it would put us in school at the hottest time of the year," Bataluna said.


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