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Schools work through calendar challenges

schoolsMacon County teachers recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of adding 20 minutes to their school days in an effort to get testing done before the Christmas holiday and fit in additional teacher workdays.

That decision will lead to a substantial change to the annual school calendar, a document constantly in flux for mountain school districts as they try to anticipate unpredictable weather and meet state requirements. 

A state law prohibits local school districts from beginning classes before Aug. 25 and ending school after June 9. Districts are also required to have 180 days — or 1,025 hours — of instruction per school year. Lastly, 11 holidays and 12 teacher workdays have to fit in somewhere. 

These regulations make it difficult for school systems — especially in western counties that average more than eight snow days a year — to have enough instruction time in the fall semester and complete required testing before students are out for the holidays. 

By simply adding 20 minutes to each day, Franklin schools can free up four calendar days and get testing completed before the Christmas break.

Haywood Schools Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte said that is not a likely option for Haywood County Schools because of the unpredictable weather. Haywood County students complete their testing in January after returning from a break, and after that they begin the spring semester. Nolte said the school system has tried in the past to do testing before the Christmas break, but it’s too risky because Haywood receives more snow than neighboring counties to the west.  

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“It will only work if we don’t have any snow — and that is rare,” he said. “We live right on the ridge, so we’re going to get more weather than most.”

Haywood County averages more than eight snow days per calendar year, which means it qualifies for a waiver from the state allowing school to start Aug. 19 or the closest Monday to that date. Even with that waiver, Nolte said it would still be more beneficial if classes could start a week before that. 

If Haywood tries to schedule 90 days in the fall semester, snow typically interrupts the testing period at the end, which means students would have to complete testing as soon as they returned to school in January. 

The way it works now, students return in January and have eight to 10 days of review before the test is administered. Nolte said the school system would love to be able to start the school year earlier in order to have adequate time for testing in December.

“We would love to have the local authority to start whenever we want to instead of when the state tells us,” he said. 

While other schools are opting to go by the instruction hour requirement instead of the day requirement, Nolte said there are advantages to students being in the classroom for more days. On a national level, schools performing better on assessments go to school more days than schools in WNC.  

“We don’t want to give up days to the point it negatively impacts performances,” he said. 

Assistant Principal Evan Clapsaddle, who serves on the calendar committee for Swain County Schools, said Swain County has been on a schedule for several years that allows them to get testing done before the holidays. 

“Three, four years ago we added 10 to 12 minutes to the day and decided to make a point to finish our fall semester exams at Christmas so students can came back in January and start over just like at college, and I’m glad we did,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense for student to take a break and then test when they come back.”

Swain County classes run from 7:55 a.m. to about 2:57 p.m. each day. The school calendar plans on five to eight snow days a year and Saturday school is always the last resort.

“Saturday school is always a last alternative because it’s only a half day and attendance isn’t great — not a lot of hearts and minds are in it so I’m not sure how much quality we get out of it,” Clapsaddle said. 

Kim Elliott, associate superintendent at Jackson County Schools, said Smoky Mountain High School hasn’t finished the fall semester before the Christmas break for many years. She said the calendar committee was still looking into options for the 2016-17 school year, including adding minutes to the afternoon block schedule to make sure the fall and spring semesters aren’t too unbalanced. 

“Typically we miss snow days in the second semester, which ends up balancing things out,” she said.

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