THERE ARE few Savannah Chatham County Public School Board issues that bring greater attention than the academic school calendar. It’s talked about by parents and teachers in carpool lines, coffee shops, and at proverbial water coolers across Chatham County.
After the eclipse day, recent hurricanes, and the “blizzard” of 2018, many community stakeholders became vocal about makeup days.
Apparently Mother Nature did not consult Savannahians about the school calendars.
Only a handful of people know the lengthy process that goes into developing the school calendar. This year, the Calendar Committee, which included administrators, principals, teachers, and parent representatives, met three times. A survey was distributed to all staff and parents soliciting input.
Developing the academic school calendar and deciding what factors need to be considered for scheduling for 38,000 students and 5,600 staff members is a daunting challenge — one compounded by the fact that you’ll never make everyone happy with the end result.
It seems almost unanimous that parents and teachers think the school year started too early this year, with teachers on 190 day contracts returning on Friday, July 27 and students on Thursday, August 2 for their 180-day academic year.
The survey conducted by the district showed that 82% of parents wanted a start date of mid-August or later, and 79% of employees concurred. Over 4,500 parents responded to the survey and 1,979 employees answered the questions. Complete results can be found with the October 2018 Board documents.
Kurt Hetager, Chief of Public Affairs and Administrative Services Officer, said, “in the development of the academic calendar, the District must balance the feedback received from our families, staff and the community, with certain requirements to include those under state statute that call for 180 days of instructional time, inclusion of holiday time off for all, staff planning time, and constraints that dictate the ending date of the school year.”
Two of the main considerations in developing the calendar are the academic testing schedule and pre-scheduled graduation dates at the Savannah Civic Center.
There is not much that can be done on the local level about the testing window, because the Georgia Department of Education sets the state testing window and requires all school districts to test within that established window.
Since local discretion only falls within the state testing window, there is not much flexibility in those dates.
While other venues were considered for graduation ceremonies, outdoor locations are problematic due to cost and weather concerns.
Alternate large indoor spots don’t provide the sightlines that are prefered by proud parents who want to take photos.
“With an outdoor venue, there are other considerations. Greater safety concerns of direct heat with small babies and older family members in attendance,” said Dr. Dionne Hoskins-Brown, District 2 Board Member.
“Renting a stage, scaffolding, lighting, and draping are added expenses. At MLK Arena, these things stay in place and you lock the door until the next day,” she says.
At an outdoor venue, “what could not sit outside in the elements would have to be setup each day, which would be extra labor and security costs,” she says.
SCCPSS has the Savannah Civic Center booked the week of May 18, 2020 for eleven back-to-back graduations over a four day stretch. After that, SCAD has it for the last week in May, and June is also reserved with other events.
Jenny McCord, parent and community representative on the Calendar Committee, would rather see the school district hold graduations at each individual school rather than the Savannah Civic Center.
“The administration ties our hands by scheduling graduation ceremonies two to three years before the calendar committee meets to set the calendar,” says McCord.
“They additionally limit choices by refusing to limit the number of attendees per family,” she says.
While all high schools have some type of a auditorium or gym, Hoskins-Brown advised, “I have never heard families appreciate ticket limits. Most schools don’t have the capacity for the senior class, let alone family members, faculty, and staff.”
Once you start blocking out days that are “sacred” to Savannah, such as St. Patrick’s Day and Veterans Day, the choices of the final calendar dates become even more limited.
The School Board will be voting on the proposed 2019 - 2020 calendar on Wednesday, February 6, but it won’t be the exact one recommended by the Calendar Committee.
“The committee looked at calendars from all over the state,” says Michael Johnson, chair of the calendar committee and District 7 School Board Member.
“We discussed the pros and cons of each. We got feedback through surveys from district staff and stakeholders throughout the district. We took everything into consideration and made compromises. As a committee we were proud of the work we did, and I was happy with the recommendation we made,” he says.
The Calendar Committee had a later start day, but District Administration changed the Committee’s recommendation so that staff will start back on Monday, July 29 and students start back on Monday, August 5, 2019.
“We appreciate the feedback received and the work of the Board’s Calendar Committee, and recognize that the Administration’s recommendation includes many of the items supported in our outreach,” says Hetager.
“While it is difficult to balance the desires of all, this calendar has been developed in a manner that maximizes student achievement, represents feedback received by the Board’s Calendar Committee, and includes administrative requirements,” he says.
“Additionally, taking all of these components into account, and after final review by Administration, the start date of Monday, August 5 is proposed to ensure 180 days on the academic calendar. Anything less than 180 days would require a waiver that would require full Board support.”
Much of the work of the Committee was kept though. One thing McCord fought for was that the teachers wouldn’t have to start on a Friday after the winter break.
“A Monday start is an easy way to foster goodwill,” she says. “Many teachers have complained in the past about Friday work days which they feel cut short their vacations unnecessarily.”
Other aspects of the final draft of the calendar that the committee worked hard to assemble were the week-long Thanksgiving break that the survey showed 61% of parents supported and 79% of teachers supported.
The committee also wanted a full week for spring break. Worthy to note though is that there are three make-up days asterisked in each of those weeks, so if you pre-pay for vacations, do so at your own risk.