A group protesting ever-earlier school starts in North Carolina has turned the heat down for now on its shining Bad Example in the state, Macon County, but that reprieve might prove temporary.
Save Our Summers-NC joined forces with Highlands resident Sabrina Hawkins, who has three school-aged children enrolled in Macon County Schools, in legal action earlier this year against the state’s school board. The N.C. Board of Education granted Macon Schools’ request to start school early so it could offer three weeks of concentrated reading help for remedial students during the course of the year.
When all was said and done, however, many parents in Macon County said the early Aug. 4 start really didn’t prove that big a deal for them or their children.
“It was tough with the summer being shorter, but it will all equal out in the end,” said Tara Raby, who has a school-aged daughter in Macon’s school system.
Students who aren’t targeted for the catch-up instruction will be off for those three weeks spread across the school year.
Hawkins and Save Our Summers-NC asserted that Macon County skirted the intent of the state’s school calendar law, which prohibits the use of waivers like the ones Macon received, to “accommodate system-wide classroom preferences.”
The group asked a judge to stop the Aug. 4 back-to-school date in Macon County. The judge did not intervene with an injunction as the group hoped but did allow the initial lawsuit to move forward. The group recently opted to drop the case in favor of focusing efforts, and dollars, toward next year, however.
In other words, Save Our Summers-NC is taking a mini vacation of its own before possibly launching another salvo in the calendar battle.
“They are ready to intervene should the school board choose to re-apply next year for an improper waiver,” Louise Lee, a spokesperson for Save Our Summers, said in a press release. “School districts should take note that any efforts to evade the school calendar law will be closely scrutinized in the waiver process.”
Superintendent: It’s all about student needs
That prospect doesn’t seem to deter Macon County Superintendent Dan Brigman, even though records indicate the school system spent about $26,000 in legal fees because of Save Our Summers’ calendar battle.
Brigman wanted, and received, with his school board’s approval, the waivers for each of the county’s 10 schools to use a “nontraditional calendar.” A traditional calendar, according to state law, in comparison has “one track” in operation for at least 180 days, with a long summer break of about 10 weeks in length.
Macon’s schools started early, for the most part, to allow local educators two opportunities to intercede with students needing extra academic help. That could happen again, depending on what exactly the schools’ calendar development committee and the Macon County Board of Education decide best serves students, Brigman said.
“There is always the threat of opposition to the school calendar,” he said. “But student learning (not fear of legal threats) is at the forefront of our decisions.”
It may be a moot point in Macon anyway for next year. Counties with more than eight missed days due to snow are exempt from the mandatory start date. While Macon County didn’t have enough snow days to qualify for the exemption this school year, next year it will be.
Macon’s school superintendent emphasized that the school system “followed state protocol” in requesting and receiving its waivers this year. Although all of the schools in the county ultimately got a waiver, each applied individually, and so it did not amount to a “system-wide waiver,” the N.C. Board of Education decided when ruling on the Macon schools’ request.
And, now that the first intercession is complete, Brigman maintains that he believes Macon County Schools made a good decision. About 400 students participated each day, at a cost of $163,834, according to the schools’ finance officer, Angie Cook. That number includes the salaries of teachers, bus drivers, child nutrition workers and other staff.
Students not needing extra help could take part in certain “enrichment” activities. That’s what Kyra Doster’s nine-year-old son did.
“The intercession week was good and bad,” Doster said. “It does give the kids a break and a chance to catch their breath.”
Doster said she and her husband were luckier than some parents when it came to finding childcare for these mid-year, week-long breaks. Other family members helped watch over the fourth-grader when he wasn’t taking part in the special activities, allowing the couple to continue with their jobs as normal.
“If we had to have a babysitter, it would have been kind of tough,” Doster said.
The next intercession in Macon County Schools takes place March 5-9.