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Remsen schools say early start sets up rest of year

Thursday, August 16, 2007

With the August air thick, Remsen Union teachers help a mass of students find the right bus after the first day of school. Remsen schools started Wednesday, about a week earlier than they've started in the past. Several schools have made the switch to an earlier-start calendar to solve semester schedule woes.
August 15, 2007.

Swimming pools were packed with kids.

The Iowa State Fair was in full swing.

And Remsen students climbed out of buses and headed into school.

This year, Remsen-Union and Remsen St. Mary's schools adopted a new calendar for the school year that pushed up the start date about a week earlier than in the past.

There were some concerns about possibly cutting into family vacation time, dealing with heat, or having kids head back to school when they're not quite ready, but the school board decided the pros outweighed the cons in this case.

The main reason for the switch, explained Ken Howard, superintendent of Remsen-Union, doesn't come until about four months down the road.

Christmas Break.

"What we really wanted to do was finish the ?rst semester before the Christmas break," Howard said, sharing the results of research the calendar committee did with people in the district.

They found that when the semester carries over to the ?ve or six days after Christmas break, teachers were having to reteach materials students had learned before the break.

"Those days were just not educational," Howard said. "And the two days before break were kind of a waste too, since kids were getting ready for Christmas, so we were wasting six to eight days. Then 1/20th of the school year is lost."

With the new calendar, the main goal is to have semester tests before Christmas break.

The school board, Howard said, was extremely supportive. R-U talked with Remsen St. Mary's, as well, since the two schools share transportation, and the Catholic school is going along with the adjusted schedule.

Sports were also part of the picture in moving the calendar up. The Iowa's boys and girls athletic associations, Howard said, have moved sports schedules up a week as well. The aim was to get baseball done before August. Remsen's ?rst football game is Aug. 24.

"We thought if we were going to make a change, we'd do it with the sports schedule changes," Howard said.

Aware of parents' concerns about starting school a week earlier, Howard said he didn't want to discourage people from taking family vacations.

"I'm one who, if you're going to spend some quality time at the State Fair with your kids and Grandma and Grandpa, then go ahead and miss a day or two of school," Howard said. "That will be a pretty educational experience, too."

And as for those concerned it will be too hot, he said they'll have to wait and see.

"And they may be right, and if so, we'll adjust the schedule," Howard said.

But for the ?rst three days, he said, students will only have class until 1:25 p.m., with the teachers having professional development time for the rest of the day. The half days, Howard said, are good for students to get adjusted while easing back into school.

Not all students are thrilled about the earlier start date, talking about the heat or just not being ready to come back to school.

"But we've had just as many saying they're ready to come back," Howard said. "And I know parents are ready for them to come back. And I'm definitely ready for them to come back."

R-U parent Val Owens said she thought the schedule change was a great idea.

"Typically kids are ready to go back about the middle of August. They usually get bored that last week before going back, and we didn't hear any of that this year," she said. "I know it's hot and that can be a drawback in the buildings that don't have air conditioning, but kids handle that better than us grown-ups."

Cheri Nitzschke, another R-U parent, also thought the switch was a good thing.

"The kids were bored, and now they'll get done with semester tests before break," she said. "But I do know with sports some kids didn't have any time off."

Like it or not, people probably won't be complaining about the switch at the end of the year.

The adjusted schedule also means the last day of school is earlier. If there are no snow days, Howard said, R-U will get out in the middle of May

"And the ?rst baseball games are right after that," he said.

Owens, who has younger children, said starting school earlier will also be good for kids in the baseball and t-ball programs that start in spring.

"This way we won't have to do as much of the going to games then quick going home to do homework for school the next day," she said.

Moving up the school calendar isn't an unusual move -- Howard said there are four or ?ve other schools in the region doing the same thing. While Le Mars Community Schools are sticking to an Aug. 23 start date, they've looked into the option in the past.

"Quite a few schools have made that move this year. It seems to be something that's gaining popularity," said Superintendent Todd Wendt of LCS. "We're just not ready to do that yet."

For Kingsley-Pierson Schools, kicking off mid-August has become the norm. According to Superintendent Scott Daily, they've had this calendar for about ?ve years now.

"I think it's been very beneficial, especially for the high school students," Daily said. "They don't have to take two weeks off before taking semester tests."

The school has enjoyed finishing the ?rst semester before Christmas break, he said.

"It's never fun coming back after Christmas and having a week of classes, then semester tests," he pointed out. "And who wants to study over Christmas break?"

K-P schools figured in another factor in moving up their schedule: the Post Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO).

"This puts our schedule more in line with colleges and universities for kids taking PSEO classes for college credit," he said.

Daily has seen the number of students taking PSEO (Post Secondary Enrollment Option) increase every year since he has been there.

As for late-August heat, it doesn't affect K-P schools much since all of their buildings are air conditioned.

"We've got to put in 180 days no matter when we start," K-P Daily pointed out.

Like Remsen, they're aiming to get out before Memorial Day even if there are snow days. The last scheduled day for K-P classes is May 16, ten days before the holiday.

Wendt, at Le Mars Community Schools, said that an earlier-starting calendar is something the school board has tossed around for some time.

"Every year when we go though the calendar development process, the question comes up: can we try to end the ?rst semester by Christmas break?" he said. "To do that we would either have to start early or have an uneven number of days, and neither one of those has appealed to us at this point."

Having an uneven number of days would mess with classes that are only one semester long, he said. Then a class might get 80 days in the ?rst semester and in the second semester the same class might get 100 days.

"That's too unbalanced," Wendt said.

Though a different schedule may be a possibility in the future, LCS is planning to stick with the current system.

"We've had the same calendar for quite a while now, and not only our employees but also our parents and students are accustomed to it," Wendt said. "The feedback we've gotten is folks aren't ready to start that early."

In Remsen, with only one day of school under their belts, Howard and others aren't going to jump to any conclusions about the outcome of moving forward the school calendar.

"There are tradeoffs, negatives and positives," Howard said. "We'll re-evaluate at the end of the year and see if this was what's best for the Remsen Union school district.

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