Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 21 to clarify information about other districts’ starting dates in 2015 and to correct the latest time comments can be offered on the calendars.
School Board members encourage public comments by Nov. 11
Last year, the Sarasota County School District was one of only three in the state to start as late as Aug.22, with the Florida Legislature allowing openings as early as Aug. 10. The Sarasota County School Board decision came after a multitude of protests, especially from parents arguing for more time off in August than in May.
“I think we were the odd man out,” School Board Chair Shirley Brown told about 70 people in the chambers for the board’s Oct. 18 regular meeting. “I think that was a mistake for us last year, and I will not repeat that mistake this year.”
The board members then voted unanimously to approve the advertising of calendars for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years as proposed by an 11-member committee comprising staff, teachers and parents. The starting date for the 2017-18 school year would be Aug. 14; for the following school year, Aug. 13.
Both school years would end on May 24.
“I have a hard time discounting the work that [the committee members] have done here,” Board member Bridget Ziegler told the audience. Still, she pointed out, “We are a representative government,” so she encouraged people to offer comments during the period the calendars will be advertised.
The board is scheduled to vote on the final versions of the calendars when it meets at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6, in Sarasota.
A district news release directs the public to provide their thoughts on the proposed calendars via email to firstname.lastname@example.org by 4;30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11. More information is available by clicking on the School Calendars link in the Hot Topics section of the district website homepage at www.sarasotacountyschools.net.
During the School Board’s workshop on the morning of Oct. 18, Superintendent Lori White explained that the district also will use its ConnectEd internal communications system to alert all staff members and families about the proposed calendars.
As they did last year, the committee members recommended calendars that include testing before the winter break. David Jones, one of those members, told the board that the decision was unanimous. “Like it or not,” he said, “there is a system that we’re all encumbered by right now that involves lots and lots of high-stakes testing. … One of the things that is greatly accomplished by shifting the calendar [to starting a week earlier than this year] is that it gives us that additional week to prepare our students for their exams.”
That includes exams for the district’s International Baccalaureate schools and Advanced Placement tests, he noted.
The earlier beginning also “gives our students the opportunity to have a truly unfettered winter break,” Jones pointed out.
Debra Bryan, a Riverview High School teacher who served on the committee, referred to that situation as a “mental health break” for them.
When she talked with students over the past few months, asking their views on the calendars, School Board member Jane Goodwin said, “the word ‘dread’ came forward a lot. … Having a joyful holiday time … is something that students really relate to.”
Jones noted that parents raised the issue last year that if completing exams before winter break was so desirable, why do the best universities not follow such a schedule.
In response to that, he said, he researched the calendars for the eight Ivy League schools. Seven of them have exams before winter break, he added; Princeton is the only one that does not. Its starting date this year was Sept. 14, Jones said, and it has a full week of fall break. He was not certain the Sarasota County District wanted to follow that pattern, he told the board.
Moreover, Bryan said, “It seems like we get more accomplished starting earlier.” Both calendars gives students three weeks in class before the Labor Day holiday, Bryan pointed out.
More pros and cons
Another issue raised last year by opponents of the earlier start was the heat of late summer, Jones noted during the board workshop. Therefore, he conducted a research of the average temperatures in Sarasota County over the past four years for the months of June through September. The results follow:
- June — 89.
- July — 90.
- August — 90.
- September — 89.
He pointed to the “one-degree differential.”
Jones also explained that high school students with enough credits would be able to graduate at the end of the fall semester and then start the spring semester at universities if the proposed calendars were adopted.
Joe Binswanger, director of information services for the district, told the board he had researched the historical trends of that issue. During the 2007 school year, Binswanger said, 88 students were able to graduate early, before the district adhered to a pattern of a later starting date. During the 2015-16 school year, he noted, only 21 did so.
When the board asked for public comments that afternoon, Booker High teacher Gail Foreman — a committee member — and six Booker High students voiced support for the calendars proposed by the committee.
However, two members of the public — Jeffrey Steinwachs and Jennifer Mason — urged a later starting date. “Do we really want to follow the herd of low-performing districts?” Steinwachs asked.
He and Mason also questioned whether the committee members went into their work with an open mind, citing a comment Roy Sprinkle, the district’s director of human resources and labor relations — and leader of the calendar committee — made that morning about an organization called Save Our Summers. They credited that group with persuading the Legislature to call for later starting dates — a decision that the Legislature later reversed.
Chair Shirley Brown responded that she was in the Legislature when the organization began lobbying for the later opening dates. “Save Our Summers was not a group of parents as much as it was a group of businesses — the hotels, Disney, Universal, Sea World.” They wanted to keep their school-age employees later in the summer, she added, because of tourists coming from up North to visit Florida.
When the organization was unsuccessful in its first round with the Legislature, she said, it recruited parents to help it win over the lawmakers.
Mason also told the board that 65% of the people surveyed on the matter last year wanted a later starting date.
School Board member Goodwin responded by pointing out that the 65% figure referred only to those who participated in the survey. They did not represent 65% of the almost 43,000 students in the district, Goodwin added.
During the workshop discussion, School Board member Ziegler also took the opportunity to ask Sprinkle how the committee members were chosen. He replied that in the past, staff called the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association and, generally, the president of that organization would find people to serve. “I then decided to add some positions,” Sprinkle said, to make the committee more representative of the district. Among the additions are the Teacher of the Year and the Classified Employee of the Year. He also finds a parent — usually one active in the PTA or similar group at the school the person’s children attend — from each of the three regions of the county: north, central and south. This year, Sprinkle noted, parents represented Booker High School in Sarasota, Pine View School in Osprey and a North Port elementary school. However, he pointed out, the Pine View parent unfortunately was out of the country both times the committee met.
Other facets of the calendars
In regard to holidays, Sprinkle noted during the workshop that Good Friday falls within Spring Break during the 2017-18 calendar, but it is marked as a “Mini-Break” — April 19 — on the 2018-19 calendar. In the past, he said when school was in session on Good Friday, “it was a bit of a disaster, because students and teachers, for the large part, didn’t show up. … It wouldn’t make much sense for us to hold school on a day when no one’s coming.”
Board member Caroline Zucker argued for making Yom Kippur — a high holy day for those of the Jewish faith — a holiday for students, along with Good Friday. “I think we will be very progressive when we can do that.”
After board member-elect Eric Robinson noted that Yom Kippur would fall on Sept. 30 in 2017, Chair Brown said that is a Saturday.
“That’s not the point,” Zucker replied.
As far as Thanksgiving week goes, Sprinkle continued, “our students are still showing up and our teachers are still showing up that Monday and Tuesday.”
The Manatee County School District takes a full week off for Thanksgiving, Sprinkle said, but “to take two more days away from the beginning of the year and add them on the end didn’t seem healthy [to the Sarasota District committee members].”
Ultimately, Ziegler said, “There is no calendar that is going to achieve unanimous agreement.”