Different school starting dates, calendars cause confusion and headaches for parents _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ-- It was the end of summer vacation and the dawn of a new school year as some of the 620 students head to class on the first day of school at Lake Forest Charter School at 12000 Hayne Blvd. in New Orleans, La. Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. Schools in the metro area have a variety of starting dates.

Valerie McGinley’s 15-year-old son started 10th grade on Monday, but his sister and three stepsiblings could sleep in, riding out the varying lengths of their summer vacations.

The first day of classes in New Orleans is anything but traditional for the city’s 46,000 public school students, with 19 different starting dates ranging from July 20 to Aug. 26.

It’s actually more than 115 different starts when taking into account schools that stagger grades by time and date.

And it’s not just the first day of school that’s disjointed.

The decentralized system’s 43 governing boards, which operate a combined 82 schools, each create their own calendars of holiday breaks, teacher training days and other days off during the year.

For parents trying to keep all those calendars straight?

“It’s insane,” McGinley said. “We have kids with three (calendars), sometimes four.”

McGinley’s son is a sophomore at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, an Orleans Parish School Board charter. Her daughter will be in fourth grade at Metairie Park Country Day, a private school. Her partner’s three children attend K-12 Lusher Charter School — a high schooler, a middle schooler and one in elementary school.

“I have one starting on Monday and then my daughter starts on Thursday with two half-days and then Lusher starts the following Monday,” she said. “They were supposed to start Wednesday the 12th, but because of construction issues, they had to push it back to Monday the 17th,” a decision Lusher made just this month.

The varying days off and calendars can make it difficult to coordinate pickups and who’s taking off time from work when the kids are out of school.

McGinley said she’s lucky because she has a fairly flexible university job.

“I can’t imagine any parent who is an hourly worker having to deal with this,” she said, wondering about potential lost wages or inflexible supervisors.

“The prime example is the spring break,” she said. “Some schools will have the spring break the week before Easter; some schools will have it the week after.

“If you have kids that are at different schools, then you could end up having to take off two full weeks to try to figure out what to do with your children.”

Many schools in New Orleans give students a week off for Mardi Gras, when some parts of the city can become virtually inaccessible and many students are marching in parades. But Mardi Gras breaks differ as well. Some schools give students the calendar week of Fat Tuesday off, while others split the days before and after the weekend leading up to the big day.

Parent cooperatives can help, with parents taking turns watching each other’s kids over breaks. But if someone is new to a school or it’s far from home, McGinley worries that option is not as feasible.

McGinley works for Tulane University, where in the past 10 years, different schools and departments have worked to align their calendars, such as starting dates and exam periods, she said.

“The opposite has happened with the New Orleans public schools,” she said.

This is where Deirdre Johnson Burel’s idea for a “common calendar” comes in. Johnson Burel is the executive director of the Orleans Parish Education Network, a local nonprofit working to engage citizens and share best practices in education.

She envisions an opt-in calendar system for charter schools.

“It would offer, like, a calendar A, B and C. There would be common agreement about start date and end date and major holidays,” she said.

Such a system could be a factor for parents making decisions on where to enroll their children. For example, a parent with two kids could pick both a high school and an elementary school on schedule A.

“It wouldn’t solve everything,” Johnson Burel acknowledged, but it would help on the big dates.

McGinley likes the idea.

“You’d have to have a lot of coordination, and everything has to be voluntary,” she said. “You can’t have forced participation.”

The system isn’t confusing only for parents.

The Orleans Parish School Board sent out a list of opening days last week, well after some schools already had opened.

School calendars also affect other city systems, such as the flashing lights that warn drivers to slow down in school zones. But the reduced speed limits are enforceable only on days when the zone’s correlating school is in session. The city admits to reviewing just some of the school calendars and creating a single best-fit schedule for the lights.

Johnson Burel said schools should realize similar calendars would help parents.

“I think this (would be) a win-win, having a set of options,” she said. “It really gives consideration to parents and all they have to navigate.”