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School board’s calendar hurts teaching

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POSTED February 21, 2010 1:33 a.m.
At the last Manteca Unified school board meeting, the trustees approved a calendar which defies description.  But, I will try to explain what has happened.  District administration brought a calendar to the school board for their approval.  Not only had district administration recommended approval, but school leaders representing nearly 2,000 employees had supported this calendar.  A great deal of thought, time and effort was spent in developing a calendar that provided an excellent framework for learning during these tough financial times.  

Over the last two years, the common message heard from parents, students, and employees was that students needed breaks spread out during the school year, much like is seen in Lodi, Ripon, and Stockton school districts.  Currently, our students attend school from early August until a week break at Thanksgiving.  That is one long haul.  Then, three weeks later, two weeks off at Christmas.  This on again, off again schedule is very disruptive to the learning process.  Not only are the students distracted from the excitement of the holidays (who isn’t really?) but, by the time the students are back in a normal school routine after Thanksgiving, two more weeks at Christmas interrupts learning. Therefore, smaller, more frequent breaks are necessary.  

A calendar was developed with one to two week breaks spread out every nine weeks.  In fact, this calendar was aligned with the high school schedule so a break would follow at the end of every quarter.  These breaks would have been a week in October, two weeks at Christmas, and a week in March.  Easter is late next year, April 24th, so the Friday before and the Monday after Easter were holidays making a four-day holiday.  School ends approximately four weeks after Easter, so the idea of having a week off with only four weeks left in the school year was discarded.  It was thought that a break during the school year would be more beneficial for the students.  Not only were the interests of the students taken into account, but also the families of Manteca Unified students.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have time off for a vacation during a time when few people are traveling?  This would accomplish several things.  One, travel rates would be far cheaper in October and March than Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the summer.  Not only that, fewer people would be traveling during those times.  Imagine it, no lines at Disneyland in October!    Also, parents would be less inclined to take their children out of school on vacations during the school year if there was a consistent break, during nice weather, that made sense for families to take a vacation.  

What constitutes a tradition?
As the trustees began to discuss the calendar, Trustee Vern Gebhardt voiced his opposition with the calendar. He stated that the calendar was unbalanced with 80 days during the first semester and 95 during the second semester.  I pointed out that the calendar was still a work in progress and that additional tweaking could be accomplished to narrow this gap.  An unbalanced schedule affects the learning of the high school students, especially those on block schedule at Sierra High and Lathrop High.  For example, a student on block schedule completes a class in a semester that normally would take an entire year.

Therefore, if the first semester is shorter, the students will not receive the required amount of information as a student taking the same class in the second semester.  As I pointed out, the schedule was a work in progress, and I was not happy with the unbalanced schedule as well, and wanted more time to work on fine tuning it.  But the basics of the calendar could be approved.  

Trustee Gebhardt also stated that having a week at Thanksgiving was a tradition for families in Manteca.  Forgive me for sounding argumentative, but a week off at Thanksgiving has been in place for the last two years.  Two years does not make a tradition.   A lifetime does. For my entire life, and I’m pretty old, I’ve always had two days off at Thanksgiving, and Wednesday is usually a minimum day.  Now, that’s a tradition.  

Then, Trustee Gebhardt stated that he thought people would take vacations at Thanksgiving with only three days of school during that week.  This would decrease money for schools with less student attendance.  Who takes vacations at Thanksgiving?  Some might, but most people use the time off to get together with their family.  

Is this all about putting football first?
I thought to myself that Trustee Gebhardt’s ideas simply don’t make any sense.  Could he have an ulterior motive?  What goes on in October that Trustee Gebhardt could possibly be against a week off from school?  Then it hit me.  Trustee Gebhardt is a former football coach and Sierra High’s former athletic director.  Two years ago, football coaches attended a board meeting to express their opposition to a week off in October.  I should know. I spoke on their behalf against a week off in October.  But, after listening to parents, students, and my fellow teachers, I’ve seen that a week off in October could be a great thing for students and learning.  And, that’s the bottom line.  

Perhaps I am assuming a great deal, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to connect the dots.  In fact, the day after the board meeting, I received an email from a football coach expressing his opposition to a week off in October.  I can certainly see his point that a break during October would create problems for teams.  However, football is extra-curricular. It does not drive the curriculum.  In fact, Lodi, Ripon, and Stockton schools have two weeks off in October and their football programs do fine.  And, during Christmas vacation, the basketball teams practice over break.  The baseball teams practice over spring break.

After Trustee Gebhardt spoke, the board took a vote and rejected the calendar recommended by the district administration.  In years past, it took months of careful planning and collaboration by Mr. Fultz to set up a school calendar.  In no less than 10 minutes, Trustee Gebhardt destroyed all of that.  He created his own calendar, eliminated the October break, and re-established the week break at Thanksgiving.  The board then voted on this calendar, and it passed unanimously.  One problem.  If the issue was an unbalanced calendar with eighty days during the first semester and ninety-five days during the second semester, guess what happened?  They made it worse!  

Now the calendar is even more out of balance
The calendar now has 77 days during the first semester and 98 days during the second semester!  They didn’t even realize what they had done until later.  In fact, it isn’t just a difference of 23 days.  It is more like 46 days of lost instructional time for those students on block scheduling at Sierra High and Lathrop High. That would be the equivalent of losing an entire quarter of school!  Talk about an obstacle to a student’s education!  This is micro-managing at its worst.  

Yes, ultimately, the school board is responsible for what goes on at school.  However, when the calendar is recommended by the administration and all of the other employee groups including the teachers, common sense dictates that you take the advice of the experts, the people on the front lines.  If you’re going to claim that attendance decreases with a small break at Thanksgiving, you should be prepared to back it up with more than just an opinion.  Statistical data should have been reviewed before this claim was made.  And, it should be a huge difference to justify placing obstacles to a student’s education.  Currently, school districts are facing an unprecedented financial crisis, but how do you place a price on a child’s education?  How do you place your personal agenda before a child’s education? How do you create a school calendar in 10 minutes that normally takes weeks to create?

You can compare both calendars for yourself.  Go to www.mantecateachers.com to view both calendars.  It is time for action.  Our school board continues to take actions that are anti-children.  For example, at the beginning of this school year, it was common to see 40 students in kindergarten and first grade classrooms across the school district.  California Education Code limits 32students per class in grades 1-3, 33 in kindergarten.  There were over70 students in PE at Lathrop High.  At East Union High, students were sitting on the classroom floor because there were no seats available.  Class schedules for high school students were being rearranged six different times so they could be put into classes just for the sole purpose of putting them somewhere. Juniors were put in senior classes and vice versa because there was no room for them in the courses required for graduation. High school students are encouraged to go home at lunch because there are not enough classes to put them somewhere.  And, what does the school board do?  They sit in their new $14 million district office building and do nothing while your child’s education suffers.

Did you know that the school district carried over $16 million from last year’s budget that went unspent?  Add this to the $12 million they have sitting in their budget, allocated to nothing.  Not only that, they have a reserve of $4.5 million. Plus, they have an additional $3 million from an unexpected 600 student increase in enrollment.  Add it all up and it is $35.5 million sitting around and doing nothing for your child’s education. Now, the school district will say this and that about the $35 million, but facts are facts.

We are facing a financial crisis that none of us have ever seen before, including schools.  Statewide, $17 billion has been cut from school budgets.  Our reaction during a crisis is a telling reflection of our leadership, ethics, and intent.  If you support breaks spread out over nine weeks, if you support keeping the cuts away from the students, if you support using your tax dollars in the classroom rather than gathering dust and interest in a bank account,  then you need to write or call the school board.  That’s the first step.  Their contact information is on our website. The second step is to attend the school board meeting on Tuesday, March 9, at 7 p.m. Your investment in time is a small price to pay to promote education.  Finally, contact me if you’re interested in running as a candidate for school board.  Visit our website at www.mantecateachers.com and my contact information is there.  We must take back our school district.  Education is more crucial now than ever before due to competition for skilled jobs from workers around the world.  The education and future of our children are at stake.
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