School calendars reflect community preferences
By Lisa Crockett
It’s August, a time of year that many of us of a certain age equate with the last days of summer vacation. For most students in Douglas County Schools, however, class is in session well before even a hint of fall is in the air. School calendaring decisions are made by individual schools based on what school administrators feel best suits the needs of students; administrators choose from several pre-approved options from the Board of Education.
In the Douglas County School District (DCSD), neighborhood schools can choose from a total of five different calendar choices, which include options that give students longer breaks in the fall and spring, a longer break at Thanksgiving, and even an option to go year-round with short breaks interspersed throughout the year. Additionally, charter schools like DCS Montessori and American Academy in Castle Pines determine their own unique calendars, which typically differ somewhat from neighborhood public schools. DCS Montessori and American Academy have fall, winter and spring breaks at the same time as the neighborhood schools, though other days off don’t always correspond.
In the Castle Pines community the majority of students attend school in the so-called “Rock Canyon feeder area,” which follows a “conventional” calendar. Sage Canyon Elementary, however, follows the “split-fall break modified” calendar, which shortens the summer break, lengthens spring break and gives students a full week off at Thanksgiving.
Part of the reason for an early start has to do with precedent; for decades, schools state-wide have started the fall semester before Labor Day. The early start, though, also has a lot to do with what happens in December.
“We spent a lot of time talking with students and teachers, and they overwhelmingly said that they prefer to have the semester end when school is out for winter break,” said Pat McGraw, Chief Development and Innovation Officer for DCSD. “In order for the semester to end in December, it has to start in August.”
But that’s only part of the picture, neighboring school districts like Jeffco and Cherry Creek, for example, follow a similar schedule to DCSD but this year school starts a full week after DCSD; why the early August start date?
“Fall break is hugely popular,” said McGraw. “When we surveyed families, we specifically asked about doing away with fall break, and the response was overwhelming that people wanted to keep it. In order to provide that full week off, we start earlier.”
The current method of determining school calendars was arrived at roughly three years ago, when survey participants were presented with several choices for school start dates during the first, second, third and forth week in August as well as options for other breaks throughout the year.
Students in the district attend classes 172 days per year (a number which exceeds state minimums), but the way those days are configured can be handled in a myriad of ways. Parents, students and teachers were polled by the district to find out what people preferred in a school schedule, those preferences were incorporated into the available choices, and then schools were allowed to decide which calendar worked best for their community.
“We think local autonomy works best, and we have a great process in place for calendar selection,” said McGraw.
On the first day of school, students and parents are also thinking about scheduling and teacher assignments, another facet of school administration that can also generate a lot of questions. This year, most students found out about teachers and scheduling late in July, which meant waiting most of the summer to find out about classrooms, teachers and classmates.
“Most schools aren’t fully staffed until just before school starts,” said McGraw. “We want to wait to release schedule information and teacher assignments until we can provide support to students who have questions or need to make changes.”
School will soon be in full swing, and all the attendant information – bus schedules, supply lists, bell schedules, fundraisers, social events, sports tryouts and games, parent-teacher conferences and grades – can be a little overwhelming. For information specific to your student, the school district has established a “parent portal,” which allows parents and students to access information about grades and attendance in real time. (Visit www.dcsdk12.org and click on “Parent Portal.”) For information about your school, visit the school’s website. There you’ll find information about everything from the lunch menu to the date of the all-school picnic.
For information about school calendars, events and other information, visit www.dcsdk12.org.