Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Winter Solstice, Quinters, and Other Issues

Today marks the winter solstice, or shortest day of the year. It's the perfect day to discuss several issues related to the school calendar and curriculum that I don't have time to write about when school is in session.

Table of Contents
1. Length of Winter Break
2. Upcoming PD Days at My School
3. More LAUSD Calendar Drama
4. Reasons for the School Calendar Problem
5. The Quinter Calendar: a Proposal for LAUSD
6. "Day in the Life" Poster for the 21st

Length of Winter Break

As I mentioned in my last two posts, the LAUSD is unique in that the winter break is three, rather than two, weeks in length. A year such as this one, when Christmas falls on a Sunday, demonstrates precisely why winter break needs to be three weeks long.

In years when Christmas is on a Sunday, most schools do one of the following:

Early break: Students break up Friday, December 16th, return Tuesday, January 3rd
Late break: Students break up Friday, December 23rd, return Monday, January 9th

Both of these schedules have advantages and disadvantages. The problem with the first schedule is that students can't return on a Monday. That's because when New Year's Day, like Christmas, is on a Sunday, the legal federal holiday is Monday, January 2nd -- and there can never be school on the legal federal holiday for New Year's Day. We've seen this happen with Independence Day and Veteran's Day -- if the holiday is on Sunday, the day off is on Monday. Also, notice that the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl will be on January 2nd, rather than on Sunday. But with an extra day off on Monday, the school year might end up with only 179 days instead of 180 unless the district figures out how to make up the extra day.

The second schedule is the only one on which the last day can be Friday, followed by two weeks of break, and then the students return on Monday without disturbing the 180-day schedule. But as you see, it requires having school all the way up to December 23rd. Some Christmas specials, such as Frosty the Snowman, depict students going to school on Christmas Eve. While that doesn't happen in real life, schools can and do stay open until the 23rd. But many people object to having school that close to Christmas -- and besides, some people consider the 23rd a holiday in its own right, Festivus (inspired by an episode of Seinfeld).

By the way, both of the schools at which I subbed last year are observing the later winter break this year, but have one or two student free days in order to avoid having school on the 23rd.

The only way to avoid both problems is for the winter break to be three weeks long. And so the LAUSD takes off all three weeks that the other schools do:

LAUSD: Students break up Friday, December 16th, return Monday, January 9th

This year, my own charter school adds some extra student-free days to these:

Charter School: Students break up Wednesday, December 14th, return Tuesday, January 10th

The only other local school I know of that began winter break as early as mine is a private Catholic high school, one where many of the students I used to tutor now attend. At that school, winter break is almost three weeks long -- the last day of first semester finals and the first day of the second semester are always both Wednesdays:

Catholic School: Students break up Wednesday, December 14th, return Wednesday, January 4th

Here in California, school on the 23rd is rare unless that day is Friday. But in other states, school on the 23rd is common -- especially in New York. Over there, winter break isn't even two weeks long, much less three. Instead, the last day of school is the 23rd, even in years when that day isn't Friday, and school ends as soon after New Year's Day as possible. This year students return on the 3rd due to the federal holiday on the 2nd:

New York Schools: Students break up Friday, December 23rd, return Tuesday, January 3rd

The presenter at the PD we had on Thursday, December 15th (which is why our school let out on the 14th) comes from the East Coast and was surprised that our winter break is thrice as long as what she's used to (18 weekdays vs. six weekdays). She suspects it's because of snow days -- winter break needs to be as short as possible in order to accommodate possible weather cancellations. I also suspect it's because New York also observes more religious/cultural holidays (including both Muslim and Chinese holidays). With school not starting until after Labor Day, the last day of school could end up past July 1st with a longer winter break along with all the snow days and religious holidays.

I know that there are several New Yorkers participating in the "Day in the Life" challenge, so readers of "Day in the Life" should expect to see posts about school days all the way until Festivus.

By the way, one more confusion that occurs in years with Christmas on Sunday is the definition of "Super Saturday." While Black Friday often produces the most foot traffic in stores, Super Saturday is usually the day when shoppers actually open their wallets and spend the most money.

Super Saturday is supposed to be the last Saturday before Christmas. The problem is if Christmas is on Sunday, the last Saturday is Christmas Eve. Most often, more money is spent on December 17th than on the 24th, only because stores close early Christmas Eve.

As for me, I usually consider Super Saturday to be the first Saturday of winter break. This means that December 17th is Super Saturday -- but with LAUSD's three-week break, "Super Saturday" will often be a week earlier than the actual big day for retailers.

Upcoming PD Days at My School

Last Thursday was the first of four PD days set up for the Responsive Classroom training. The second will be January 9th (which is why students don't come back until the 10th). The remaining two will be February 16th and 17th, setting up a five-day President's Day weekend for students from the 16th until the 20th.

Provided there aren't any more unexpected calendar changes, this is convenient for my blog and "Day of the Life." That's because none of the remaining posting days (either my monthly date of the 18th or any special days) fall on a multiple of three (Day 90, 93, 96, 99, and so on). All of them are now scheduled blogging days.

There are still weeks with only two posts scheduled on my blog. When this happens, the following week should have four posts scheduled.

More LAUSD Calendar Drama

A few months ago, I wrote about proposed changes to the LAUSD calendar. I had more to say about the calendar, but I decided to wait until winter break to write about it rather than tie up school day posts with calendar discussion.

Well, while waiting for me to post, the calendar came up at the December 13th board meeting:

So apparently, the LAUSD will not be gradually approaching a week before Labor Day start, but will keep the Early Start Calendar the way it is.

Technically, the LAUSD calendar doesn't affect me directly, since I'm at a charter school. But my working assumption was that next year, like this year, our school would start on the same day as LAUSD (seeing as we're co-located with a district school) and follow the district calendar except for the extra PD days. So if the district was considering delaying the first day of school until August 22nd, then my charter school would follow suit.

But then again, charter schools were given as a reason to keep the calendar the way it is:

“There are two things that scare me to death. One of them is charter schools taking our children, and No. 2 is a loss of enrollment from vacation time and students not returning,” [board member Scott] Schmerelson said. “I can just picture a co-located charter, through Prop. 39, starting early and we’re starting later and the parents saying, ‘Oh heck, I’m going to enroll them in charter school because school is not open.’ I can’t allow co-located charter schools or independent charters to grab up all the kids before we even start.”

So according to Schmerelson, charter schools like mine would have started on August 15th anyway, a week before the district. Now, of course, both my charter and the district will start on August 15th.

The article above mentions how both "start school after Labor Day" and "end the first semester before winter break" are popular, but they are incompatible. Of course, it might be possible to start school later and end it before winter break if that holiday break weren't three weeks long -- but that also came up at the meeting:

If classes were held closer to Christmas in 2017, the district estimated that some classes could have more than 34 percent absenteeism. Projecting what attendance was the week of Dec. 18 to Dec. 22 in 2011-2012 before the calendar was changed to the way it is now, the district estimates more than 171,000 absences on each of the last two days before the winter break (Dec. 21 and 22, 2017). According to Cheryl Simpson, director of the Budget Services and Financial Planning Division, that week of absences would result in a loss of $42 million.

And recall that that would be finals week -- so students would be absent on major testing days. We see that people don't even want to have school on December 21st and 22nd -- let alone the 23rd (some California schools, all New York City schools) or 24th (Frosty the Snowman).

Reasons for the School Calendar Problem

The reason for the long break is obvious -- airline travel. I've mentioned this before in the past when discussing why Thanksgiving break is a full week. Demand for seats on airlines is sky-high at the holidays, and travelers often need to book tickets for dates that are several days before the holiday. At this point, it appears that today -- the winter solstice -- needs to be the day before which school needs to be out in order to provide adequate travel time.

Consider a year in which Christmas falls on a Wednesday. Of course there would be no school on Tuesday, Christmas Eve, and we wouldn't have a one-day week of school on Monday. So even the New York schools would end on Friday, December 20th, in such a year. In that year, ending school on the 20th is convenient to avoid a one-day week. But as we see here, travelers demand that school end by the 20th every year, not just in years when Christmas is on Wednesday.

So we see all the problems LAUSD is having with its calendar. People want the first semester to end near or after Labor Day and end by December 20th. This year, the last day before winter break at my charter school was Day 76, and recall that our school took off three days for PD that the district didn't observe, so the district had 79 days in its first semester. If school were to start two weeks later, as was originally proposed, then there would only be 69 days in the first "semester." That's the problem -- we simply can't fit half of the year (90 days) between Labor Day and Christmas.

By the way, with all of the extra days off at my charter for PD, I'm now wondering whether there will actually end up being 180 days during the regular school year, or slightly fewer.

The Quinter Calendar: A Proposal for LAUSD

We see that 69 days is too short to be a credible semester, if "semester" is taken to mean half a year, since half of 180 is 90. Notice that 69 is much closer to two-fifths of a year, or 72 days, than to 90.

In previous posts, I've stated that one solution is to divide the school year into five terms, rather than the usual four. Since one-fourth of a year is called a "quarter," a good name for one-fifth of a year would be a "quinter." This name sounds like "quarter" and, of course, comes from the Latin word quinque meaning "five." (By the way, there's a small town of under 1000 people in Kansas called "Quinter," but except for that town, my name is original.)

The Quinter Calendar is designed mainly for high schools, since these are the schools that have the need for finals before winter break. This is why I'm posting this now -- quinters have nothing to do with trimesters or K-8 schools. The school year contains 38 weeks (not counting holiday breaks of a week or more), and so each quinter contains seven or eight weeks.

On the Quinter Calendar, finals week occurs at the end of the second and fourth quinters. For the purposes of college applications, two quinters can still be called a "semester," even though this semester is only two-fifths of the year. Notice that "semester" is already a misnomer -- the word has nothing to do with semi-, or half. Instead, the word "semester" means "six months" (just ask a Spanish speaker -- mes means "month"). Two semesters would be twelve months -- which is impossible unless we eliminate summer break! So how much worse would it be to call a period of a little under four months a "semester"?

Now as for the fifth quinter, my proposal solves another problem with the school year -- the fact that testing occurs weeks before the last day of school. The idea is for teachers to cover all of the tested material during the first four quinters. The fifth quinter would begin with AP testing followed by the state Common Core testing (the SBAC).

Let's look to see what the Quinter Calendar might look like. The following refers to the 2018-19 school year -- the year that LAUSD would have started the week before Labor Day:

1st Quinter: August 28th - October 19th (35 days)
2nd Quinter: October 22nd - December 14th (34 days)
3rd Quinter: January 7th - March 1st (38 days)
4th Quinter: March 4th - April 26th (34 days)
5th Quinter: April 29th - June 21st (39 days)

Notice that the quinters are only approximately equal in length. This is because the first two quinters must add up to the 69 days that we have available. Still, the quinters are more nearly equal than quarters would have been.

It's instructive to see what happens to certain LAUSD holidays on this calendar:

-- Admission Day. We know that "Admission Day" is defined as the Friday before Labor Day. But on a calendar where school starts the week before Labor Day, we have the awkward situation of school starting on Tuesday (as Monday would be the district PD day), then three days of school followed by a four-day weekend (from Admission to Labor Day).
-- Jewish High Holidays. As it turns out, Rosh Hashanah is early in 2018 -- the Jewish New Year falls on Monday, September 10th, a week after Labor Day (with Yom Kippur on Wednesday the 19th). So this means that there is no school the first three Mondays (PD day, Labor Day, Rosh Hashanah), and the first five-day week wouldn't be until the fifth week of school -- that is, after the first "quaver" (or whatever we call half a "quinter") progress reports are due!
-- Winter Break. In 2018, Christmas falls on a Tuesday. Obviously, the two weeks containing Christmas and New Year's are winter break, but what's the third week of the break? (It's not as obvious as in a year with Christmas on a Sunday.) Well, the actual district rule is that there are exactly three weeks of school between Thanksgiving and winter break. In 2018, Thanksgiving falls on its earliest possible date, November 22nd. Therefore winter break is early this year, and finals must be completed by December 14th.
-- Spring Break. On the other hand, Easter falls late in 2019. The result is that spring break that year would be April 15th - 19th.

Now this makes the calendar as written very awkward. We see that the second semester finals would be held the week that students return from spring break! After making a big deal about students forgetting material over winter break (so that finals should be before Christmas), we turn around and schedule tests right after spring break!

It's not as simple as defining second semester finals as the week before spring break. The problem is that in other years when Easter is early, the fourth quinter would be too short, and the fifth too long, if we schedule finals before spring break.

On the other hand, it may be convenient to have finals before spring break. My vision of the fifth quinter is that students who are failing classes can repeat them during the fifth quinter (after state testing, of course), while students who are passing can have enrichment classes or projects. But we won't know which students are failing until after the finals -- so we'd might like to use spring break to process the finals and grades and actually program the students into fifth quinter classes.

We have two choices here. We can either "wing it" and just use, say, the first semester grades to program for the fifth quinter (as those who fail the first semester will probably fail the second). The other is to break the dependence of spring break on the lunisolar holiday of Easter. We'd like the fifth quinter to begin either on the first Monday in May (the day of the first AP test, in Chemistry) or a week earlier, on the last Monday in April (so that AP Chem students may also have the benefit of the fifth quinter to review for the test). In either case, the SBAC should begin two weeks later, on the third Monday in May, after the AP's are complete.

"Day in the Life" Poster for the 21st

The "Day in the Life" poster with a monthly posting date of the 21st is Wendy Menard:

Here's a link to her December 21st post:

(Speaking of "Day in the Life," Tina Cardone has finally caught up on her homepage, and so my December "Day in the Life" posts are now visible there.)

Notice that Menard teaches in New York City -- and so we know that her school is in session all the way until the 23rd. Also, notice that on this winter solstice, or shortest day of the year, Menard writes about the "Longest Day of the Year". Here is what she writes about her Algebra II class:

The Algebra 2 classes during Periods 2 and 3 went fairly well; the students enjoyed working their way through the activities, although many of them struggled without success, particularly, in response to this question:

The question isn't visible -- oops -- but apparently it has something to do with area and perimeter, which Menard is using to model a quadratic equation. For some reason, the concepts of area and perimeter, even of a rectangle, are always tricky to remember. The big idea they are learning is that the maximum area for a fixed perimeter is the square -- which I've mentioned several time before here on the blog.

Even though Menard is a high school teacher, she also tutors middle school students:

My private tutoring this afternoon was quite odd.  I have begun working with an eighth grader who, according to his mother, has a math phobia.  This is not what I have observed in the few weeks we have been meeting, but he does seem very disorganized and exhausted when we meet.  He has a fraternal twin brother who has worked with us for test preparation purposes, which was the ostensible purpose for today’s 90 minute session.  The boys have the same math teacher but are in different classes, but unfortunately, the twin (my not-regular student) had his exam today, while his brother has his exam tomorrow.  They arrived at the coffee bar where I  meet with students, purchased a snack, and came to sit down.  At first my student was moderately upbeat (he’s a low energy kid), and grinned as he wolfed down the two brownies he bought.  He then proceeded to crash, and working with him became painfully difficult.  His brother good-naturedly did the problems we were reviewing, and my student was hugely apologetic, but it was frustrating, to say the least.  I don’t like not earning my hourly fee.
Despite requests, I haven’t seen a textbook or organized notebook for this child, although I’ve asked the parent.  She has told me how forgetful he is.  But I know after today’s experience, that I need to have a discussion with her about whether this is the right fit.  I’m happy to work with this boy, but I am uncomfortable if I am not doing my job.

Back when I was a tutor, I was also often worried that my students weren't learning.

Finally, in yesterday's post, Menard writes about an interview she had at Chalkbeat. This is the first question of her interview:

What’s a word or phrase you would use to describe your teaching style?
Hands-on. Conceptual. Interactive. Energetic. I never sit down. I try to teach them bigger ideas rather than teaching to a test, which is a challenge in a Regents-based high school.
And here's a link to the rest of the interview:

This concludes the post. Remember that I'll be posting every 3-5 days during winter break!

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