Schools welcome students back for start of new year _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CHRISTINE MORGAN ARCENEAUX - Brock Jackson, 12, carries his school supplies off the bus after arriving Thursday at Ponchatoula Middle School for the first day of school in Tangipahoa Parish.

A campaign to push back the start date for Tangipahoa Parish schools has divided the district’s parents, who disagree over how many holiday breaks they’re willing to give up to keep their children home during the dog days of summer.

School officials have come up with four options for the 2016-17 calendar: one much like the current calendar with an early August start and pre-Memorial Day finish, one with a post-Labor Day start and a mid-June finish, and two others falling somewhere in between.

The options come in response to a petition started in July by parent Carli Adams, who wanted the parish’s schools to start after Labor Day to avoid the excessive August heat. The online petition gathered more than 5,000 signatures in its first week, with parents, teachers and bus drivers from across the state showing support.

But after the district’s four proposals for next year’s calendar were released on Nov. 16, a counter-petition began. Dubbed the “No Change” petition, the new effort backed by parent Sandy Zydallas seeks to keep the parish’s school calendar as it is.

A smattering of skirmishes between the opposing groups on Facebook have highlighted the difficulties of designing an academic calendar that accounts for students’ educational needs, state testing schedules, teacher education and development, and family commitments.

The district’s four proposed options shift the start and end dates for classes primarily by eliminating holidays and, in some cases, combining them with teacher professional development days, while trying to balance the schedule evenly between the first and second semesters.

Options 1 and 2 vary little from the current calendar, starting on Aug. 11 and 15 respectively, and ending on May 25, with mostly the same holidays the district already observes. But Option 2 would make the parish fair holiday a professional development day and would include only two days off for Mardi Gras, rather than three days like Option 1 or a full week like this year.

Options 3 and 4 stray much further from the norm.

Option 3 focuses on reducing holidays throughout the calendar to make the school year altogether shorter. Classes would start Aug. 18 and end May 15, with students getting only two days off for Thanksgiving instead of a week, six days instead of two weeks at Christmas, and a four-day weekend for Spring Break instead of taking Good Friday through the following week.

Option 4 shows what a post-Labor Day start might look like with most of the district’s holidays remaining intact. Classes would begin Sept. 6 and end June 16, with first-semester finals falling well after Christmas break.

Proposed calendar options for for Tangipahoa Parish schools

The School Board’s Instructional Accountability and Support Committee voted 4-2 on Nov. 16 to recommend only Options 2 and 4 go to parents and teachers for feedback. The full nine-member board will decide whether to accept that recommendation on Dec. 1.

Board President Brett Duncan said there is “a slight possibility” that the board will amend the committee’s recommendation and put something different before parents and teachers, “but that does not usually happen.”

Whichever options are ultimately presented, the board will take parents’ feedback and teachers’ votes into consideration when setting the 2016-17 calendar early next year, Duncan said.

“By narrowing it down to two, we’re hoping to get a clear indication from the public as to which direction they would like the board to go: either move in the direction of starting after Labor Day or take a more moderated approach,” Duncan said. “It doesn’t mean it would be one or the other. The goal is just to put it out there, get their input and make a final decision after we get back from Christmas break.”

Adams, the original petition organizer, said she “absolutely love(s)” Option 3, the limited holidays option, although she would extend the year to May 22 in exchange for adding five more days to Christmas break.

Adams said she also liked the post-Labor Day start for Option 4, “although I don’t anticipate a lot of individuals to go for it considering it has the students getting out in June.”

The mid-June finish was indeed a problem for Zydallas and other parents who voiced their concerns about the options on Facebook.

The calendar would no longer line up with those in surrounding parishes, where parents might take their children for summer camps, and seniors might have trouble enrolling in summer college courses, Zydallas said.

Parents and some board members also disliked that Option 4 would put first-semester finals after Christmas break.

Board member Rose Dominguez called it “a totally ridiculous option,” saying she was “totally against breaking for the holidays and then coming back to finish up the semester.

“I voted — for the students — to not even accept that one as an option,” she said.

Parent Amy Brumfield also opposed finishing the first semester after Christmas break.

Like Adams, Brumfield preferred Option 3 with some changes. She would have proposed ending the year on May 19, instead of May 15, in order to add a third day to the Thanksgiving break and three more days at Spring Break.

“But the pushback I received from one board member was that Christmas break would still be only six days, and that’s when a lot of noncustodial parents in divorced households get to spend time with their kids,” Brumfield said.

Zydallas said she was disappointed that the School Board would put only two options out for feedback, especially if neither option was to leave the calendar alone.

“The excuse that it’s hot was just never legitimate to me,” Zydallas said of the push to change the calendar. “It’s November and we’re just now wearing pants. And it will still be hot in June. That’s why I’ve been quiet up until now: I just thought the whole argument was illogical and it would get washed under the bridge. But now, with these options, I just can’t sit back and do nothing.”

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.