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A Calendar Conundrum

August 5, 2014, 10:06 PM by Jared Ransom

A Calendar Conundrum

A school's calendar is its schedule, a list of events that parents, students and faculty plan their lives around. It's typically set by a committee of teachers and parents at least two years in advance.

"What needs to be determined is what is best for days off, what can we give students and teachers for time off to help them regenerate," Sioux Falls School Board President Kent Alberty said.

What happens inside the school year isn't the biggest concern for parents like Wendy McDonnel. For nearly seven years, her biggest issue has been when school starts. She feels the year can begin in September.

"At the end of the day, it just really came down to we want that time for our family and this is a calendar that can be adjusted and we had asked multiple times for the calendar to just be tweaked a little bit," McDonnel said.

She has approached the Sioux Falls School District on several occasions to see if an adjustment could be made.

"We said, 'Ok, fine.' We took a look at what we had for break points throughout the first semester and we said, 'We can move that back,'" Alberty said.

"We were heard for a couple of years where the date got a little better, but it's just slowly gotten back to where we were," McDonnel said.

Where they were wasn't what concerned parents were hoping to see.

"We have 23,000-plus students in the school district, and honestly, to balance what's best for the largest number of kids that are being educated and parents and teachers, that's a big job," Alberty said.

Keeping the start date where it is now, according to Alberty, is both academic and practical because it gives students a better chance at succeeding at their semester tests.

"The advice that we received from administration when we researched other school districts around the country, the feeling very strongly was that kids will be able to perform better if they have their semester tests before winter break," Alberty said.

McDonnel feels that goes against the reasoning for education itself.

"If we're basing all of our calendar around a testing schedule, then I think we're missing what we're truly supposed to be doing," McDonnel said.

It was a fight that McDonnel felt could still be fought with words, but the school board's decision this April to approve calendars for the next three school years changed her plan of action.

"Hopefully then, we could put to bed the idea of we need to adjust start dates, end dates and all of those things.  And again, if I look back, I'd say we probably should've just done two years," Alberty said.

"We knew if we didn't do it at this point, we were not going to have an opportunity to have a say for another three years, and that seemed like a very long time," McDonnel said.

So McDonnel and other parents started a petition drive to put the school start date up for a vote. Nearly 5,000 signatures were approved by the school board and now voters will cast a ballot next spring.

"It was a pretty overwhelming feeling because we knew that we had to get a large number, but I don't know that we'd ever get that many," McDonnel said.

If voters decide to change the start date to after Labor Day, Alberty says the rest of the calendar would shift by two weeks as well.

"What will happen is if it's voted that the start date is after Labor Day, then the way the calendar looks at this point, and it's very preliminary, graduation will be over Memorial Day weekend," Alberty said.

Simply having a vote, and a voice in the process, is all McDonnel wanted.

"It gets everybody an opportunity to have a say in April if they want to have that, and that was the whole focus of it was to be heard," McDonnel said.

"Whether we start in September or whether we start in the middle of August, my goal is going to continue to be the same and we will make whatever adjustments are necessary to accommodate the wishes of the people," Alberty said.

Both McDonnel and Alberty say they will fully accept any result that comes in the April vote, but if the school start date doesn't change, McDonnel says it's an even bigger reason for more people to run in the school board elections.

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