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Let school boards shift calendar – and watch test scores rise

By Jonathan Lee Sink
Special to the Observer

With Thanksgiving and Christmas break quickly approaching, it is a good time to revisit a recurring problem that affects many of the 1.5 million public school children in North Carolina: the K-12 public school calendar. I’m not talking about what time you have to rise to rally your kids to school and fight traffic on the way home; I’m talking about the “bookend dates” that encompass the entire school year, that is, when K-12 public schools are allowed to start and end their school year.

The problem: State law prohibits schools from opening prior to the Monday closest to August 26. They must close no later than the Friday closest to June 11. The biggest problem is the statutory start date, which hamstrings public schools by forcing them to administer fall semester exams after students’ Christmas break. Guess how much knowledge seeps out of most students’ brains during these weeks off? Guess how many shadows are cast on students’ time off from school, knowing full well that they will return to the sour welcome of heavily weighted exams? Similar to summer learning loss, the winter break results in a significant amount of learning loss. The end of Christmas break is bad enough. Having to think about these tests during your time off is even worse.

The simple solution: The N.C. General Assembly could swiftly fix this problem by tweaking N.C.G.S. § 115C-84.2 to allow school boards to set their own school calendars. Even if they refuse to give school boards full authority over their school calendars, setting the mandatory start date three weeks earlier would be all that schools need to fit winter exams in before students break for the holidays. My message to the General Assembly: Give students a chance to take exams before winter break and watch test scores rise. And let students truly enjoy holidays with their families without having to worry about getting hit with exams upon their return!

The cost: Nothing. The General Assembly does not have to appropriate a single dollar to eliminate the school calendar problem; it merely has to modify a flawed statute and empower local school boards to shift their calendars.

What citizens can do to help: There is a small but powerful group of N.C. senators who have been the major roadblock. If you care about advocating for more local control over school calendars, let Sen. Tom Apodaca and your House and Senate delegation know. Sen. Apodaca argues that giving schools calendar flexibility will negatively affect the N.C. tourism industry. The problem with this argument is that allowing kids – over half of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch and who can’t afford to travel and enjoy tourism, period – to start three weeks earlier and allowing them to get out earlier for summer break is not going to negatively affect North Carolina’s tourism industry. It is merely a shift in the calendar, not an addition of school days. What this change would do, however, is allow students to take their exams while the information is still fresh, improve student achievement on a statewide level, and let kids enjoy their winter break.

Pre-holiday exams have worked for colleges and universities for decades. It is time to give local school boards the same flexibility for the benefit of North Carolina’s public school students.

Jonathan Lee Sink is associate general counsel at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

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