February 9, 2021: Student Calendar

We sit down with LEA President Rita Bennett and Assistant Superintendent for Governmental Relations and General Administration John Neal to discuss the student calendar creation process.

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Video Transcript

Mindy Burbach 0:17
Hello and welcome to LPS Live Board Preview. I’m Communications Director, Mindy Burbach.

Don Mayhew 0:22
I’m Don Mayhew, Lincoln Board of Education member. We started this Facebook Live program to share what’s happening at Lincoln Public Schools and to answer your questions.

Mindy Burbach 0:31
If you have any questions during our live show, please type them into the Facebook chat and we will try to get to them as we have time.

Don Mayhew 0:38
Each year a committee composed of a board member, parents, teachers and administrators recommends a student calendar to the board for consideration. The calendar committee began work last September to consider a student calendar for the 2023–24 school year. Tonight they are presenting their recommendation to the school board for first reading and for consideration. Joining us to talk about the process: our Lincoln Education Association President Rita Bennett, and Assistant Superintendent of Governmental Relations and General Administration is John Neal. This morning, my iPhone told me it was about zero degrees, and I think it warmed up to all of nine degrees. Thank you both for braving the cold and joining us today to talk about the calendar.

Rita Bennett 1:21
Happy to be here. Thanks, Don.

Don Mayhew 1:24
All right, John, let’s start with you. It is important to note that this is for the 2023–24 school year, what started out as a tedious and overwhelming process many years ago, has now been streamlined and it allows us to gather input and develop a calendar that maximizes learning. Tell us more about the process and how the committee goes about their work to determine a calendar.

John Neal 1:46
I’d be happy to. I think the probably the most important thing is to reiterate what you said in the introduction, and that the committee is really a collaborative group of people that are all impacted by the calendar and so they come together to come up with a calendar that works for everyone. So that includes administrators like us from LPS and LEA, as well as a school board member, students and faculty and, excuse me, not students, parents, faculty, administration, from elementary and secondary schools. So we come together in September. And the first thing that we do is look at the purpose that was established by the board in 2011 for the creation of the student calendar that helped us streamline having that specific purpose really made a difference. And that focus is to have a student calendar that ensures the continuity, efficiency and effectiveness of teaching and learning. So it to do that we also review a number of board approved calendar variables that the board gave us to consider as we create the calendar. And it’s really worth keeping an eye on the purpose with the guidance of the variables. And each bringing our own perspective to the committee is what makes it work and make it work so well.

Don Mayhew 3:04
I’m glad you mentioned that because as I talked about, the way that we used to do things was a little bit less efficient. And I remember it being quite a process to where the the committee would bring back to the board 2, 3, 4 or more different calendar options. And then we would weigh those those calendars against each other look at the university’s calendar and talk to the teachers about when it was best to be in and out of school. And trying to put all these things together. And I think then at some point, we realized there was a better way to do it. By coming up with this list of variables, as you said, or these lists this list of guidelines. What are some of those variables that were given to the committee to work with?

John Neal 3:43
Sure. To give you give you a historical example. Previously, the committee had over 20 variables to consider. And some of them were in conflict. For instance, two of the things that we were supposed to included in the calendar were a number of smaller holidays, so that it broke up the school year, and bringing all of the holidays together to allow more extended time with family. Well, those were impossible to merge together. And through the guidance of the board, we were able to to narrow those down to very specific variables that weren’t in conflict with each other to help us come up with a calendar. The three primary are that semester and quarter breaks should be the same for elementary and secondary school to help families stay together during those times. The second was the four quarters should always have sufficient days in each quarter to complete the curriculum and have somewhat similar number of days throughout the year and each quarter. And the third is it student vacations should not interrupt or immediately proceed important assessment dates and that was probably the most impactful change in variables. Some others include some secondary variables include always trying to have, for instance, three school days in each week, not having a week of one day or two or when we do have breaks, try to match them up on common holidays, national or state holidays, where families are already maybe off work and available to have a break.

Don Mayhew 5:11
One of the questions that I sometimes get is why do you have school starting, it seems earlier and earlier in August, for example. Let me flush that out into a broader question. How do you decide in general, when to start and end the school year and when the breaks should happen?

John Neal 5:27
Absolutely. If you think about those three, those first three primary variables, they really kind of set the stage for the start and end of the school year. If you look at the third variable, not having a major break, right before assessments, that really situates our end of semester assessments that occur before the winter break, that’s a big long break. And you don’t want to have two weeks away from instruction, right before end of semester assessments. So if you move the end of the semester, before winter break, now you look at having an even number of days in each quarter. Well, if we have 180 days, that’s about 45 days per quarter, you are going to end your semester at the B towards the end of December. And so now you just backup 90 days, and following winter break the early part of January, you just extend forward 90 days. And that’s when we moved the starting date from more towards the end of August to the middle of August is because we took those 10 days, we used to come back to school following winter break. And those were pushed back in December. So that’s why we started about where we do, it starts with the idea of having a large break, right before learning is going to be assessed as not being an effective way to measure what our students have learned.

Don Mayhew 6:50
Thank you, john. And that’s a great lead into Rita Rita. This is one of the many projects that LPS and the Lincoln Education Association partner on. How does this calendar maximize student learning?

Rita Bennett 7:02
That’s an excellent question. Because obviously, that’s what we’re all about is student learning. And so some of the ways that it does maximize it is for, for example, what John said about the variable with respect to not having major breaks right before assessments.

I’ve been a high school teacher. And so in the old days when, when we didn’t finish the first semester, until in January, I had my students off on a long winter break coming back trying to take comprehensive final exams, that encompass the learning from the entire semester. And it just really wasn’t as advantageous for students to really be able to demonstrate their mastery. It also meant that students often had to prioritize, or at least some students, you know, prioritize some studying over winter break. So that’s one of the major ways I think, that this has has really helped with student learning. Another is in that we actually, sometimes when we can, we try to put just a few more days sprinkled into fourth quarter, because that’s when a lot of state assessments are done. And so we want to offset that. We also understand that during second semester, we’re sometimes impacted by snow days. And so really just trying to wrap all those things around, always with the priority of student learning at the forefront of our mind, no matter what we look at, really does make a difference. And I think it’s been vastly better, certainly at the high school level. I know to have that to have first semester completed before winter break.

Don Mayhew 8:27
I really appreciate you saying that because I think sometimes people forget that the the thing the driving force between so many of our decisions behind that is the idea of doing what’s best for kids. And I know that we are a data driven student, I remember the conversation about moving the end of the semester to coincide with winter break. And that was a that was a change in paradigm for a lot of people. But then we looked at the data for the next several years and the data bore out the teachers and the administration were correct. Not taking a break before a big assessment ended up being a really good idea for our kids. This year, the committee initially put together two options to get input. Rita, who did the committee get input from on the options and why is it important to get feedback on the calendar from different groups?

Rita Bennett 9:10
Well, we haven’t gotten so desperate yet that we flip a coin. So we really do go out and and consult a variety of constituent groups. So it’s all of the stakeholders so as John mentioned earlier, it’s parents, the Community Curriculum Council, PTOs are consulted with we go to some of the CLC leaders with our Community Learning Centers because the school calendar also impacts those in those have become such an important component for so many of our students and families. So, so those are important as well. Again, the calendar committee itself also consists of parent representatives, school board representative, LEA members, I serve on the committee, I co-chair it with John, so, so really, it’s all of those groups. I think even some, you know, Booster Club leadership as consultants, so just as many groups as we can reach out to as possible. I also do a formal survey of faculty representatives, which are LEA members who represent every school building that we have in the district. And so then we bring our results together. And I don’t think we’ve had time yet in the six years I’ve been at this, I don’t think we’ve had a time yet, John, when we’ve seen a, an opposite opinion from a teacher group, for example, versus a parent group, they pretty much always seem to agree with one another, which is also really affirming for the committee and tells us that we’re on the right track when we narrow those options down.

Don Mayhew 10:33
Rita, you taught, you have taught in LPS for 30 years, this is your last year as LEA president. First, let me just take a second to say thank you, thank you for your incredible service to our kids. That is a huge, huge investment in our children. Thank you for that.

Rita Bennett 10:50
A huge privilege.

Don Mayhew 10:52
As the end of your LEA president term is coming up, what did you and the calendar committee learn over the last six years? And what advice would you give to next year’s calendar committee?

Rita Bennett 11:04
First and foremost, we need our science programs to figure out how to clone john Neal, and, and to, to make sure he’s always available to the calendar committee, because really, those variables, all of that was pretty complicated when it was first put into place and looked at. But now it does run pretty smoothly, because John has put a lot of documentation behind that, that really helps to guide our work. And, and it means that in about two or three meetings, we can get the whole project done, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. And so that’d be my first advice. But barring that, I think that that it’s really important for us to remember to continue to consider all perspectives. And the strength of the committee is that I get to sit there and listen to what a parent might think, or a school board member or one of our elementary teachers has a different perspective than a high school teacher, which is also critically important. I’ll never forget one of our high school members, teachers made a comment one day and said this is really helpful for me because I don’t, it’s hard for me to know, how does that impact elementary children, especially the younger learners, versus how a particular change might impact High School learners and so, so I really think that i think i think listening to all the perspectives, and taking not getting in a hurry. So always taking the time to do that as well, I think is super important. And then obviously, just keeping the focus on what’s best for students. And also taking that teacher input as well, because we’re the ones on the frontlines who know what’s best for students, and can offer that perspective. So I just think keeping that richness of input is vital to the fact that we’ve been able to successfully bring some calendars and the board has supported them because they too have seen the data that demonstrates the results of our work.

Don Mayhew 12:58
Well, I do know that the process now is much smoother than it used to be. I remember that feeling many years ago that it was impossible to come up with a calendar that everybody liked. And so I’m so pleased that this process has come together the way it has. Thank you both for your work on that and for joining us as we talk about today. Thank you so much.

Rita Bennett 13:18
Thank you.

John Neal 13:19
Thank you for having us.

Don Mayhew 13:21
All right, and to the folks that are watching, we are getting ready to have our regular board meeting at six o’clock. Remember that you can watch it on our website at lps.org or on the LNK TV education channel.

Mindy Burbach 13:33
Our next LPS board update on Facebook will be Friday, February 19 at noon. Just a reminder, you can submit your questions on the LPS Facebook page or on our website lps.org. Just look for that blue contact us button. And with that, thank you for joining us