FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
At Moanalua Middle School yesterday, teachers got their classrooms ready for the start of school later in the week. Inside his eighth-grade science classroom, teacher Rory Vierra, right, and student teacher Janna DeSantis arranged desks.
Isle schools get back on track
Many public school students start classes today
IT WILL BE a new school year in more than just the usual way when students begin heading back to public schools today. For the first time since the late 1980s, nearly all of Hawaii's 255 traditional public schools will be on the same overall school calendar, a change expected to hold benefits for students, families and the school system itself.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Although today is the official first day for Hawaii schools affected by the new statewide school calendar, some start later depending on when they have scheduled student orientations and professional development for teachers. Below is the number of schools opening each day:
Today: -- 49
Tomorrow: -- 85
Monday: -- 106
Tuesday: -- 7
Wednesday: -- 3
Thursday: -- 1
For Darlene Paahana it will mean the end of a year-round juggling act she has endured trying to keep the schedules of her three children straight.
One attends Waipahu Intermediate School, and two are at Waipahu High, while she works as the Parent Community Network Coordinator at Honowai Elementary. All three schools are on divergent calendars.
"It's taken a lot of remembering, a lot of writing things down and a lot of communicating. I've gone through so many Post-It notes it's not funny," said Paahana, who for years has maintained a family calendar, color-coded for each child.
In the late 1980s, individual schools were given the freedom to come up with their own calendars and did so with zeal over the years. But the resulting hodgepodge of timetables placed strains on family schedules and some Department of Education operations.
This year, however, all schools will be back in session by next week. There are breaks of one week in October, three weeks for Christmas, a two-week spring break and a seven-week summer break. Only four multitrack schools are not bound by the schedule. The state's 27 public charter schools are also not bound by the schedule.
Besides restoring some order, the new arrangement could hold educational benefits.
Moanalua Middle School is one of many schools that switched to the so-called year-round schedule previously, partly out of concern that the traditional three-month summer break caused students to forget much of what they had learned. This was especially the case with students from poorer families that could not afford summer enrichment activities, said Principal Caroline Wong.
"One of the biggest factors for us has been the reduced learning loss. The kids come back and don't need as much review," she said.
Spreading the breaks throughout the year provides teachers with clear pauses between academic quarters, making the instructional year more coherent, and has helped improve student behavior and teacher "burnout," she said.
"Teachers aren't as burned out, and the kids aren't climbing the walls, so there are fewer disciplinary problems, too."
Under a traditional calendar, the stretch from after Christmas to the close of the school year was particularly grueling, with little respite other than the typical one-week spring break and a few three-day weekends.
"Ask any teacher and they'll tell you that it was in the third quarter, after Christmas, that their kids did the worst. But we're not seeing that anymore," she said. "It's been really positive. There's no way we would ever go back."
One of the areas hit hard by the schedule jumble was Waipahu.
Schools in the Waipahu High School "complex," which includes all the elementary and intermediate schools that feed up to the high school, were on different calendars.
Besides the family impact, it was difficult to schedule common meetings and workshops for various schools in the area, said Honowai Elementary Principal Curtis Young. The issue has become more acute amid growing efforts by schools to cooperate on a K-12 basis to raise student achievement.
"Many school initiatives these days are complexwide, but it was hard to plan workshops before. It's going to be a lot easier now," Young said.
Department of Education officials also expect an easier time arranging everything from staff training to bus schedules.
"It got pretty crazy at times in the past," said Blanche Fountain, DOE head of transportation services. "On any given day we could have a number of schools out, and we'd have to deal with that."
Fountain added, "It's kind of exciting going back to a single calendar. There are still variations, but as a whole we know when the majority of schools are in session."
The variations come in the form of waiver days and other days off that schools can use as they see fit and which are largely responsible for the phased-in start to school across the state this week and next.
The new calendar comes with some challenges. The shorter summer resulted in fewer schools holding summer school this year. There is also less time in summer to deal with repair and maintenance issues, Moanalua Middle's Wong said.
Concerns also have been raised that summer will now be too short for public school teachers to pursue further training and professional development at the University of Hawaii -- whose summer schedule now clashes with the DOE's -- and other colleges.
It is not a problem, said Michael Omizo, associate dean for academic affairs at the UH College of Education, who said the college will have further offerings available by next summer to meet DOE needs.
"They shouldn't worry about that. I honestly think it's better this way because with everyone on a set schedule, now we can plan around that," he said.
Honowai Elementary's Paahana is looking forward to a new era of not only less hassle, but closer family ties.
Last year, for the whole family to take a trip to Disneyland, she had to pull two of her kids out of school.
The disruption also has stymied efforts by her close-knit extended family to get together more often. Now, clan members are already talking about a big camping trip during one of the breaks.
"Now we're finally on the same page," she said.