After decades of public school students attending school for nine months followed by a summer break, state education leaders are urging Louisiana school districts to try a new calendar.
Prodded by state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, a bill is moving through the Legislature that would pave the way for up to half a dozen school districts to overhaul the routine, including year-round classes marked by periodic breaks.
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One of the aims is to lessen summer learning loss – the all but inevitable slip in what many students learned during the previous school year when academics are shelved for nearly three months.
"What we know is that there is summer learning loss, we know that it is real," Brumley told the House Education Committee. He said students can forget up to 30% of what they learned in their previous grade.
"I am not here to tell you that a balanced calendar is a cure all," Brumley told lawmakers. "But given where we are in outcomes we should be exploring all options that make a difference in the lives of our students and teachers."
The measure, House Bill 528, cleared the House Education Committee without objection and next faces action in the full House.
The sponsor of the bill, House Education Committee Chairman Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, delayed a vote on the measure that was scheduled for last Wednesday.
If the plan is approved by the House it would face scrutiny in the state Senate.
Under the measure, districts that take part in the pilot projects would do so on a voluntary basis.
The legislation would also allow officials of the state Department of Education to use a portion of federal stimulus dollars to help districts overhaul their schedules.
The plan is generating pushback from the state's two teacher unions – the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators.
Cynthia Posey, director of legislative and political affairs for the LFT, noted that some students rely on summer months to earn money for college or to buy a car.
Some teachers have second jobs when schools are closed.
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Posey said the bill is "changing something that people in a sense have always planned their lives" around, meaning the nine-month school calendar.
Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, a member of the House Education Committee, said changing the school schedule could disrupt traditions. "I do think summer time is a very important part of our constituents' lives and this would cause a fairly difficult adjustment," Edmonds said.
Any change in the public school calendar can spark resistance.
East Baton Rouge Parish School District Superintendent Sito Narcisse ditched his plan to start the 2021-22 school year early amid a firestorm of criticism from teachers and others.
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But officials in one north Louisiana school district that overhauled its school calendar as a response to COVID-19 said the new routine has been well received, especially amid gains in student reading scores.
"For us it has generally been a blessing in the fact that our parents have said yes, our school board has said yes now we are seeing the fruits of those labors," said Karen Squires, director of curriculum for the Red River School District.
Students attend classes for 42 or 43 days, followed by two-week breaks.
Those who need extra help can get it during the breaks – called intercessions – and others can get enriched learning.
The school year is set to end on June 30, then resume on Aug. 11 after a roughly five-week break.
Brumley said state education workers would assist local school districts, like they did for the Red River school system, to craft new school calendars.
"We work with a system to set up a calendar that makes sense for them," he told the committee.
Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer, a member of the committee, praised the proposal.
"This is how we help our children," Jefferson said. "This is good. This is really good."
State law requires students to get a certain number of minutes of instruction per day, and 172 days of instruction per school year.
But there is latitude in exactly how those days are allocated.
Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said it is important that officials in individual school districts adopt school calendars that work for them.
Mills said research done by the National Education Association concluded there is no significant academic gains for students who attend school year round.
The Louisiana Key Academy in Baton Rouge, which educates 430 students with dyslexia, is in its third year of using a shortened summer break and other non-traditional interruption in classes, including one week during Mardi Gras.
Heather Bourgeois, principal of the school, said the new schedule is aimed at helping students.
"That extended break is really detrimental," Bourgeois said. "We implemented it and the got support from families and are committed to working with families."