Schools
 

New Orleans charter leaders work to align school calendars

Parents who have been juggling students in different schools may soon see some relief as many New Orleans charters begin working together to coordinate their calendars.

Independent charter schools create their own calendars, and during holidays like Mardi Gras, schedules can vary. Some schools will release classes early on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Other schools — not all — have Friday off. Most schools have all of next week off. Then, a month later, is spring break. That can also differ from school to school.

Kate Mehok, the CEO of three-school charter network Crescent City Schools, said the ability to set calendars at the school-level is very important. But she and other leaders recognize the current system can be challenging. They’ve selected a handful of holidays to work around for the 2019-2020 school year. If all goes well, they could agree on more the following year.

“We think calendars are very personal to each school and school community,” she said. “At the same time we are a city with lots of schools and oftentimes parents can have kids in multiple schools.”

Ashana Bigard knows the split calendars all too well. Her daughter attends Homer Plessy Community School while her son is at Bricolage Academy. Online school calendars show the schools have the same Mardi Gras vacation days but different spring break schedules. She likes the idea of a common calendar.

“It’s great that they’re doing it, but they probably need to have input from the parents who are affected,” Bigard said, adding she’d prefer the district take the lead.

“My daughter will often be off two or three days before my son is,” Bigard said of school breaks. “For me, if I’m paying for childcare that adds days that I have to pay out of pocket.”

New Orleans school leaders have discussed a set of common holidays to build their school calendars around. Charter schools will still have final say on their calendars, but leaders want to help make life easier for parents with children at multiple schools.

Mehok heads the New Orleans School Leader Forum, a nonprofit group of charter school leaders who worked to sketch out common holidays for the 2019-2020 school year. She said the Forum partnered with the Greater New Orleans Charter School Collaborative, a similar group.

Orleans Parish School Board committee members heard about the work last week. Board member Ben Kleban thanked Mehok and other leaders involved in the effort.

“We hear from parents all the time about that being a major challenge in this decentralized system so it’s really exciting to hear that,” he said. “I’m very hopeful and optimistic to see a great product.”

Of the city’s 86 public schools, the most that are run by the one operator are KIPP New Orleans’ seven schools. That means there are dozens of different school calendars throughout the city each year.

Mehok thinks the exercise will help schools align on about 75 percent of days off. So far they’ve identified six common holidays, including the Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week and a two-week stint over Christmas. They’re also discussing additional days like fall break.

While schools work to voluntarily align on some dates, Mehok said there will still be differences, and charter schools will still have ultimate responsibility for their own calendars. She noted construction delayed some school openings this year, which pushed their school years later into the summer.

Bigard thinks it would be good to involve the city’s recreation department, which runs summer camps, when schools are making their calendars.

“Sometimes schools let out before the camps start,” Bigard said, noting it can leave parents in a bind.

She hopes the Orleans Parish school district will oversee a common calendar, but one of the key tenets of the charter system is the organizations get to set their own calendars.

Whatever a school’s preference, Mehok thinks early communication with parents is key. Mehok said parents can give input to school leaders directly, and they can take that into account for the 2020-21 calendar.

One area where Mehok anticipates differences among participating schools will be professional development days for staff. At many schools, students are off on those days.

“Some schools like to do them once a month,” she said. “Some schools like to not have them and release early on Wednesdays.”

Another big variable is state standardized testing, she said. Some schools can get testing done quicker if they have more computers, for example. Test dates vary depending on grade level and whether schools have the equipment to do computer-based testing.

Mehok said the common calendar will be an evolving process. After schools set their calendars for next year, the groups will discuss what worked and what didn’t. Charter schools will still have the final say on their calendars.

“Schools should make their calendars to reflect their needs,” she said. “We can try each year to coordinate it as much as possible.”

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.