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January 10, 2012 Published in Editorials

Timely Advice

This past week Superintendent of Schools Morton Sherman let the School Board and the public in on some of his thinking that is shaping the budget for next year. Perhaps the most interesting and controversial issue is planning to reduce the amount of intercession time at Samuel Tucker and Mt. Vernon, our two elementary schools with modified calendars. He is also planning to reduce summer educational opportunities in general.

Parents at the modified calendar schools are upset. At this point, however, it is not clear what the educational consequences are apart from the inconvenience of having children at home rather than in school.

Schools on the modified calendar start in late July. There is a 2 week break in October, an extra week around winter holidays, and a 2 week break in the spring. Classes end in June at the same time as schools with the traditional calendar. Currently they have special "intercession" classes of two weeks in the fall and spring breaks and one week in the winter. The Superintendent is proposing 3 weeks total intercession time per school. He is also moving the start time of school to early August.

Intercessions are not cheap. Each school spends at least a half million dollars a year on the 5 weeks and it is not clear that that figure includes all costs such as transportation and lunch.

Intercessions have also been controversial when classes such as horseback riding, sailing and swimming have been offered instead of subjects with an academic focus. It is also not clear how much intercessions help student achievement. Tucker School has maintained a high level of achievement. Mt. Vernon has had issues in recent years.

Given the tight budget, Superintendent Sherman is correct to review this situation. He is right to demand that extra dollars spent on some schools produce results in student learning. He must focus on the needs of all his students and not the wants of parents.

We have concerns, however, about another part of the Superintendent's plans. He intends to reduce summer school opportunities. Research on the Baltimore City schools done by sociologist Karl Alexander of John's Hopkins University was reported in Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers". The research clearly shows that children from lower income homes suffer significantly more learning loss over the summer than those from middle and upper income homes. This learning loss appears to be a prime reason for the "achievement gap" that our Superintendent talks so much about closing.

If Alexandria's public schools care about closing the achievement gap they cannot ignore research.  Summer school targeted to a student's needs was a prominent part of earlier and successful Alexandria efforts to raise student achievement. All of the talk of closing gaps will not succeed if our at risk children are out of school all summer long losing those skills that their dedicated teachers spent the school year imparting to them.

We encourage the Superintendent and the Board to think this issue through clearly. We encourage them to make their decisions based on "efficiency" of education for all of Alexandria's students.


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