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Nashville’s new school calendar may heat up learning

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on July 19, 2012)

While driving in the midst of Nashville’s recent record-setting heat wave, with my car’s air conditioner striving mightily to make the ride bearable, I could not help but feel surprised to see a sign in front of a local elementary school reminding the public that school starts again on Aug. 1.

Can it really be that summer vacation is almost over?

Yes, it can. This year Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joins several surrounding school systems in implementing a balanced calendar. Metro is shortening the summer break and starting a week and half earlier than last year’s Aug. 11 start date.

Just to be clear, a balanced calendar is not the same as year-round schooling. Metro is not adding days to Tennessee’s state-mandated 180-day school year. The new calendar will redistribute the days lost from the summer vacation as vacation days or intersession days during the fall and spring.

The early start date is also driven by Tennessee’s state-mandated schedule for TCAP testing. MNPS and other districts strive to get in as many instructional days as possible before TCAP testing starts.

Intersession adds a built-in opportunity in the calendar for teachers, parents and students to work together more intensively, participate in enrichment activities or just get caught up. Most students will not attend school during these periods, but students needing extra help may, and students wishing to get ahead also may elect to come to school.

Metro’s primary argument in favor of the balanced calendar is that a shortened gap between the end of one school year and the start of the next will help to reduce summer learning loss, which is the loss of knowledge acquired during the previous school year because of children’s inactivity during extended time away from school.

As I explained in my column of May 18, summer learning loss is known to disproportionately affect children from low-income backgrounds and children who are English language learners. Unlike their peers from higher-income backgrounds, these students often lack opportunities for enrichment that summer traditionally provides. Many children from low-income backgrounds do not go to camp, enjoy vacations to new places or visit museums.

My colleague, Professor Claire Smrekar, cites the relationship between out-of-school time and what many of us know as the achievement gap. Says Claire, “Policies such as year-round schooling and the balanced calendar address the relationship between academic achievement and poverty by focusing on productive, in-school activities. Research shows that not only disadvantaged children but all children benefit from this steady, continuous learning and engagement.”

But as Claire also notes, a balanced calendar alone is not sufficient to ensure improved student achievement. Excellence in teaching, strong school leadership and close parental involvement are needed to take advantage of the opportunity for more continuous learning. Metro’s new balanced calendar provides a framework, but people remain the key ingredients for fostering academic success.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.