County schools plan earlier fall start

By Jeff Linville -

DOBSON — Surry County Schools is working on a plan to change its school calendar to more closely resemble Surry Community College.

County teachers and central office personnel presented a plan and several reasons why this is a good idea to the county Board of Education on Monday evening.

Dr. Jeff Tunstall, assistant superintendent, explained details of the calendar such as proposed start/stop dates of Aug. 7 to May 28.

Area school districts had similar schedules in place a few years ago, but had that flexibility taken away in July 2013 when N.C. Session Law 2012-145 took effect, requiring: “Start date no earlier than the Monday closest to August 26 and end date no later than the Friday closest to June 11 (unless a weather-related calendar waiver has been approved).”

Other parts of the state law include requirements that state schools:

• Must have a minimum of 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction.

• Must have at least nine (9) teacher workdays.

• Local boards shall designate two (2) workdays on which teachers may take accumulated vacation leave.

For August 2016, the school start date was Aug. 29. In 2017, the date was Aug. 28. If no change is made, the fall start date this year would be Aug. 27.

Two years ago the school board was struggling to make adjustments to the schedule after a couple of snow storms caused closings.

Board member Brian Moser said at that time he didn’t like having their hands tied on school scheduling because of state laws. He said it should be up to the school boards to figure what was best for their regions.

Tunstall replied that 25 bills to that effect were introduced in either the N.C. Senate or House the prior session, and not one of them ever made it out of committee.

If that is the case, then how is Surry County able to be flexible now? By classifying itself as a modified year-round district.

“If you adopt a year-round calendar, you can start when you choose,” Tunstall told the board Monday.

That doesn’t mean that students have to be in class over the summer, officials explained. The schools must have activities all year long.

“Schools really are in use 12 months out of the year,” said Dr. Travis Reeves, school superintendent.

Typically once regular classes let out, Reeves explained, June is a busy month with summer school classes, summer reading camps, STEM camps, art camp, agriculture camp and others. School buses are running to pick up kids for camps.

Then in July, the high schools stay busy hosting youth sports camps like football, basketball and volleyball.

At the start of August, fall sports teams begin practice, even though school isn’t back in session yet.

Last summer, the school year ran long , nearly to the middle of June, which put a squeeze on summer camps, Reeves noted.

The school advisory committee, which includes parents and teachers, had discussed this scheduling beforehand. Some members of the committee appeared before the board to give their opinions.

Leading off was a parent, Brenda Robertson.

Some parents have to schedule time off with bosses well in advance. It is tough to plan a vacation midyear when there is always a possibility bad weather could cause a makeup day to be squeezed into a tight calendar, she believed.

As for starting at a similar time to the community college, she said that a lot of teens are taking classes through the college or at the Surry Early College, and parents want their teens and their younger kids on the same timeline.

Are parents going to leave someone behind to go on vacation if they have a kid in middle school and another at Early College, asked Philip Riekehof, the school system’s current district-wide teacher of the year, representing elementary teachers for the committee.

Surry Central alone has 186 students taking at least one class through the college, said Stephanie Miller, teacher of the year for Surry Central high School, representing high school teachers. That’s a big number to be impacted.

Reeves added that last year 38 percent of juniors and seniors were taking at least one college course.

Robertson also believes that kids should have first-semester exams taken and over before the Christmas break so that they can enjoy that family time without tests hanging over their heads. And, parents worry that the kids will forget a lot over the holiday and make worse scores.

“Most of the teachers were in general consensus that there must be a correlation between testing before break and higher scores,” agreed Miller.

When talking about the plan in the committee, Robertson said, for every negative someone raised, there were five positives.

Some say it’s too hot in August, she stated. Well, it’s hot in June, too, and these days there is air conditioning everywhere anyway.

Teaching is hard and exhausting, but it must be more exhausting for kids, said Rhonda Taylor, teacher of the year for Pilot Mountain Middle, representing middle school teachers. One middle school teacher wondered if there might be a reduction in discipline problems if a flexible schedule broke up class time more often.

The way the law is written now, school must start on a Monday, which means kids and teachers go from no school at all to a five-day week.

Miller said the high school teachers favor easing into school with a Thursday-Friday start, rather than five straight days.

Another argument for starting school earlier is the impact on sports, explained Miller, a former assistant coach for the girls varsity basketball team.

She said she spoke with Myles Wilmoth, Surry Central athletic director, about scheduling. Football has a tight schedule in order to get to the playoffs early enough. That means two football games (and other sporting events) can take place before the students have returned to class.

This means less fans to cheer for the home team, she said. And for a revenue sport like football, a lot less ticket sales.

Last fall, East Surry athletic director Randy Marion lamented that the Cardinals had two home games before students came back, but then spent five of the next seven games on the road.

Looking more closely at the calendar, Reeves said school would be closed on the Friday of the Autumn Leaves Festival, as the city schools like do as well. The big increase in traffic that day interferes with running buses in the afternoon, he said.

There will be four Wednesdays with an early dismissal so that instructors can have time for teacher development training.

The Christmas holiday would likely extend to Jan. 6 to match up with the college.

Spring break would occur in March, and not be tied to the Easter holiday, Reeves said. However, families will still get a four-day weekend with Good Friday and Easter Monday off.

Reeves said the staff had spoken to school officials in Iredell County who operate a similar year-round calendar.

If the school board approves the calendar, Tunstall said he would then update the N.C. Department of Public Instruction as to the change.

As the board typically does, no motion was made Monday night. The board will give the public one month to kick around the idea before putting the item on the agenda for April.

Board aiming for Aug. 7 classes

By Jeff Linville

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.