By Steve Robinson | March 30, 2013 - 10:31 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Students in Normal’s schools are in the home stretch of their school year, with only about 60 days or so before they are out for the summer. But already, both Normal-based Unit 5 School District and officials who oversee Illinois State University’s Lab Schools, including University High School, have already rolled out their 2013-14 school year calendars. For both entities, putting together a school year calendar is a collaborative process.

At Unit 5, the contract between the district and the Unit 5 Education Association, the union that represents the district’s teachers and other similar staffers that bargain with the district, requires the teachers’ union be involved in the calendar-finalizing process, explained Dr. Sandra Wilson, assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.

Wilson said members representing Unit 5 administration, including principals, teachers, clerical staff, and food service employees were present. Those meetings typically begin in December before school lets out for the holidays. Unit 5 Board members approved the final calendar in their only meeting in March.

Wilson said the process starts with her preparing a list of proposed dates for starting school, institute days, and other similar dates essential to those staffs.

With draft calendars in hand, members of Wilson’s committee take Wilson’s information back to their respective constituencies, to find out what they liked or didn’t like about the proposed calendar.

“It’s a really nice collaborative conversation,” Wilson said about the process of assembling a calendar that will impact so many students, parents, teachers, and staff. “I really like this because there were concessions from all sides.”

From there, dates are put into a final draft calendar, Wilson said. That draft calendar goes back to the separate groups being represented for any last minute issues and/or approval before being finalized by those groups. Once the committee finalizes it, Wilson presents the finalized calendar to Unit 5 School Board members, who vote to approve during their public meeting.

ISU Lab Schools handle setting its school year calendar using a “system-wide committee that meets and looks at the number of days that we need to satisfy State requirements, adding in the number of professional development days that we have,” explained Dr. Jeff Hill, Superintendent for ISU’s Lab Schools. It’s a post he has held since last summer. For seven years before that, he was principal at University High.

After those dates have been plugged in, Hill said, “From there, a calendar committee comes up with a couple different calendar options for our faculty to vote on.”

Hill said the faculty votes “on the calendar option that is best. Once we get that figured out, then we send the calendar out to our parents.”

Hill said he approves the calendar based upon the recommendations of the Lab Schools’ calendar committee.

Both Unit 5 and ISU Lab Schools have “late start” days and “early dismissal” days neatly inserted into their calendars. Late start days are generally used for Professional Development for the teachers. Early dismissal days are generally related to school events such as homecoming activities, parent/teacher conferences, and the like.

When Unit 5 began “Late Start,” it was a means of providing professional development time without having to factor in travel costs. Unit 5 did calculate “Late Starts,” which typically are on Wednesdays once a month, would save the district around $1 million annually. At the lab schools, Hill said no one had yet to tag a dollar savings figure to their late starts.

“I do think, in general, there are a lot of similarities in how ‘late starts’ serve the two groups,” Hill explained. “”We’re always seeking ways to get people together for the purpose of developing professionally. Research shows that having faculty collaborate around some important topics is a good way for professional development to happen.”

Setting homecoming dates – one of the biggest social school and community events during the school year – is done with assistance of the individual school’s athletic director and football coach, Wilson and Hill explained.

Since U-High shares Hancock Stadium with parent Illinois State University, “we’re looking at a variety of different factors,” Hill said. One of those factors happens to need to know when ISU’s homecoming is, and we take a look at the optimal time of year, and usually, that’s late September or early October for us.”

Hill said U-High also looks into “finding the best facilities for providing a dance which also factors into the equation.” I don’t want to sound like an old fogy here, but when I went to U-High, the equation was simple: Dances were held in the school cafeteria. But as we all know, times have changed.

Hill said scheduling dances has to be given consideration, too, because U-High has access to the Brown Ballroom in the Bone Student Center on ISU’s campus, a very popular venue for public events, as we all know.

Most of us probably never gave the school calendars a second thought in terms of their assembly. We just take them when they are published in preparation for the next coming year. I don’t know about you, but I am likely to have a little more appreciation for the effort that goes into planning a new school year from this point on.

On a subject related to school start dates, beginning with the 2013-14 school year, a new law goes into effect that would erase a shorter first day and shorter last day of school for students, something that has seemed to border on traditional for years. Illinois Senate Bill 2850, introduced by State Sen. David S. Luechetfeld (R-Okawville), was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn last year, and restricts school districts from having shorter school days at either end of the school calendar.

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