Thursday, October 2, 2014

Time To Change the School Calendar

Here in Los Angeles, we are headed for a weekend of triple digit temperatures again, and it’s October.  As our sun-is-always-shining image morphs into a desert wasteland, it is time to revise the school calendar.

Global climate change has had a profound impact on our environment, and although ignorant people continue to question the science, you cannot ignore the most profound pieces of evidence:  the rising ocean levels, the melting ice caps on our poles, the wild weather and massive storms; and in the southland, the dried up lakes and reservoirs, the tinder-dry brush choking the canyons, and the dangerously high temperatures.  When those temps start to climb, the demand for electricity across the basin spikes, and air conditioners strain to handle the load.  Schools feel the effects as much as everyone else, even if they have air conditioners that work well.  The heat makes kids edgy and restless, especially if the temps are accompanied by their usual companion, the Santa Ana winds.  Joan Didion wrote my favorite essay, “Los Angeles Notebook,” about these gusty, hot interlopers.

Years ago, LAUSD and other local school districts flirted with year-round class schedules, mostly due to overcrowding.  However, the plan lost its panache after a while and schools returned to the standard ten-month traditional year.  But here in southern California, we need to look, not so much at year-round scheduling, but shifting the summer break to take advantage of the changing nature of our seasons.  Most schools dismiss for the summer in early-to-mid June.  Some even release students in May.  Everyone returns to the classroom in August, often within the first week or two of the month.  If we mount a comparison of the temperatures within traditional summer months, May and June can be hot, but according to the Los Angeles Almanac, the average daily high for May in Los Angeles is 74 degrees; June averages 79-80 degrees.  These temps are manageable with air conditioning and shaded areas available to students during recess and lunch.  July, August, September and October have daily highs in the 80s.  The Weather Channel lists the highest recorded temperature for the Los Angeles region as 113 degrees in September of 2010.

Here is my proposal:  we break for the summer in July, possibly even mid-July.  Students are off from July 15th through October 15th.  By mid-October, the heat has left for the most part, and students can comfortably study and learn.  This means that the school year will run from October through July, but the number of school days will not change (most districts and private schools use a 180-200 day schedule).

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory discusses several studies revealing that students performed better in environmentally controlled classrooms with heat and air conditioning than in rooms without controls.  Of course, anyone who lives in the blazing southwestern U.S. can tell you that heat kills the brain.  You can fry an egg on the sidewalk and you can fry your brain in your brain pan.  The University of Georgia cites a study done by Herrington (1952) which found that students in classrooms with “temperatures above 80 degrees” experienced “harmful physiological effects that decrease work efficiency and output.”

At my wife’s Catholic school in Van Nuys, the students recently took their battery of standardized tests with some of the hottest temperatures outside for the year.  Her classroom has two window air conditioners that cannot cool the room filled with 25-30 students.  One can assume that those test scores will be impacted by the environment in which they were administered, and since test scores are the measure of success in the modern classroom, is it fair for student progress to be evaluated in this way?  Is it fair to evaluate teachers working in such conditions based on the scores of tests administered during a heat wave?

Why students have traditionally gone on summer break June through August is often attributed to the agrarian calendar formulated when much of America worked the land and needed summers for field work, but this is not true.  If schools followed an agrarian schedule, they would be off in spring for planting and in fall for harvesting.  State Impact: A Reporting Project of NPR Member Stations quotes Assistant Professor at CUNY Kenneth Gold, who explained that schools in America did once have a year-round school calendar.  In 1842 New York, students had 248 school days throughout the winter and summer months.  The report goes on to list several reasons for the fall-winter schedule with summers free:

1.      Standardized school years.  School reformers wanted to get rural and urban schools on the same schedule.  Since rural areas had two terms—in the summer and winter—and urban schools ran year round, a compromise had to be struck.  But, why summer?

2.      In rural areas, the summer term was seen as “weak.”  Gold said the summer term in rural neighborhoods tended to be taught by young girls in their mid to late teens.  On the other hand, schoolmasters, generally older males, taught the winter terms.  Because of this, the summer terms were seen as academically weaker.

3.      In urban areas, rich families vacationed in the summer.  City schools were trying to limit the school year in the mid-19th century anyway, to adjust to the schedules of wealthy families who would generally go on vacation in the summer.

4.      It’s hot in the summer.  The school buildings of the 19th century weren’t exactly air-conditioned.  Heat during the summer months would often become unbearable.

5.      Summer gives teachers time to train and get ready for next year.  In the 19th century teachers didn’t really go to college or get certified, so Gold said they would use the summer months to train.

6.      Doctors thought kids would need a break.  This idea isn’t given much medical credit these days, but Gold said back in the 19th century it was believed medically unsound for students to be confined to a classroom year-round.

Those school buildings of the 21st century are not all that much cooler than those of the 19th.

LAUSD and all area private schools need to re-examine the school calendar and make changes.  The drought, the extreme heat, the weather anomalies are not an aberration or a temporary fluke in a single year.  Most experts believe the drought will be with us for years to come, and that Los Angeles will be a lot warmer in the future.  Winter may even become a thing of the past.  By all predictions, we may soon be looking at a year with only two seasons:  spring and summer.  Those who will survive the colder and more arctic winters in the east, also a result of climate change, will continue to admire L.A. weather from afar, drawing conclusions from watching the sunny Rose Parade every January.  The reality, though, is far more impactful, and the consequences to student learning could be disastrous.

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