Saturday, October 1, 2022

Teacher burnout v. student retention: NHCS board debates changing school year calendar almost a year after it was voted on

NHCS’s current traditional 2022-2023 concludes the first semester on Jan. 20.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Only one week into the school year, the New Hanover County Board of Education is considering amending the traditional 2022-2023 calendar in coming days. Due to state law, the district is torn between allocating more workdays or having students complete exams before the end of the year. 

At the Sept. 6 meeting, the board voted 4-3 to reexamine this year’s calendar in a special session next week. Board members Stephanie Kryabill, Stefanie Adams and Nelson Beaulieu, the latter of which is the liaison to the calendar committee, dissented. 

READ MORE: State report marks one-third NHC schools ‘low-performing,’ more than double pre-pandemic

This year’s calendar has the first semester ending on Jan. 20, which puts high school exams after the 12-day winter break. In previous years, the term ended before the Christmas holiday. 

At the meeting, members of the public and the school board flagged concerns about administering exams after a long break and the effects it will have on students’ learning retention and, ultimately, test scores. 

A recent report from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction identified 13 out of 39 NHC schools as “low performing,” meaning the institutions received a D or F grade, compared to only five before the pandemic. Four schools received A marks. 

“I understand it’s not all about the tests, but that is our best tool right now to look at how we’re doing,” board member Pete Wildeboer said at the meeting. “I think we need to relook at this calendar and give those students the best chance to do well.”

Public speaker and educator Angela Jeffery pointed out that ending the semester before winter break would allow students dual-enrolled at Cape Fear Community College to align their schedules. With the current calendar, students would transition their high school courses after the college semester started, potentially creating conflicts.

“It is not too late to make the right decision,” Jeffery said during public comment.

NHCS Chief Academic Officer Patrice Faison, who also serves as the chairperson of the calendar committee, talked through the calendar law, set by the state, and how the district reaches its decision.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction requires schools to have a minimum of 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction. Faison explained in the meeting, essentially, only hours in the classroom can be added to the total; lunch, recess, homeroom and class changes don’t count. 

The district must also keep its total universal across schools; for instance, one school cannot have 1,030 hours while another has 1,000. Therefore, the district is required to go by the lowest number of daily hours. For New Hanover County, Faison said that number is six hours. 

NHCS has a calendar committee made up of teachers, parents and a principal from each school level, along with one school board member and one employee in district staff leadership to chair the committee. The committee can also include a student representative.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Hugh McManus asked Faison if the committee’s intentions were being upheld with the 2022-2023 calendar decision. He said committee members in the “double-digits” reached out to him with concerns.

“Was that their absolute recommendation?” McManus said. “And the reason I ask that question is, I have been inundated from administrators and teachers who were on that committee who said that was not their recommendation.” 

Beaulieu said what McManus heard was incorrect. 

The committee first met about the 2022-2023 calendar on Sept. 30, 2021, to discuss the six calendars the district sets, among them the traditional year. The committee was then chaired by LaChawn Smith, who has since retired.

At the beginning of the committee meeting, Smith proposed a 2022 fall semester ending on Dec. 20. Smith said she had received “positive feedback” on the suggestion.

“The folks that I’ve spoken with have shared with me that they want to maintain the first semester ending in the month of December and the second semester ending before the Memorial Day holiday,” Smith said during the 2021 meeting. 

The consensus among the committee — including board member Beaulieu and a student representative that was present — agreed with that goal, despite the fact it leaves teachers without designated work days throughout the semester. 

“We acknowledge the challenges about not having workdays and breaks through that long hard sludge from the beginning of the school year through Thanksgiving,” Smith said last fall. “But we also understand that in order to end the semester in December and maximize the number of instructional days for students, we really don’t have room for that.” 

Committee members tried to make compromises to give teachers a break during the semester but found state law doesn’t offer a lot of leeway. As Faison put it at Tuesday’s meeting: “When you look at the law, there’s really not a lot of choices.” 

Along with a required number of instructional hours, NCDPI requires traditional schools to begin the year no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26. This year the earliest start date was Aug. 29. The later in the week that date falls, the fewer days can be added to a school year, resulting in plus or minus a week’s worth of instructional time. 

Not only does that requirement affect how many work days can be provided to teachers, but also how much excess time a district has to use toward weather-related closures. Fall semester encompasses the height of hurricane season, and since Wilmington is located on the coast, chances are higher than other districts needing those extra days. 

On top of that, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays affect the available number of instructional days, making the fall semester a bit more cramped than the spring. 

In an effort to work in extra days, committee members suggested pushing back the semester end date to Dec. 22. 

“When we walk out of this room, we need to own it together,” Smith said last fall. 

Discussion continued on the traditional calendar, with the committee meeting three more times between Sept. 20 and Nov. 10, 2021. Members voted unanimously to present a draft to the school board on Nov. 10; the proposal placed the fall semester’s final day on Jan. 20. 

The school board approved the recommendation unanimously at their regular meeting on Dec. 7, 2021.

The issue came down to, as Smith asked committee members last year: “What is most important?” 

More specifically, the committee was tasked with finding a balance between maximum student learning retention and mitigating teacher burnout.

That question was echoed in board member remarks and public concerns Tuesday night, almost a year after the calendar conversation started. 

“I’ve heard different stories about different calendars that were proposed, but I’ve talked to teachers and principals too and parents that are looking at this calendar now and seeing some big problems,” Stephanie Walker said during discussion.

Faison remarked the decision was made to balance the semesters in order to prevent spring semester students from receiving more instructional time — about two weeks — for the same class. 

Beaulieu defended the committee’s decision.

“The imbalance would have created an undue burden on our staff, on our teachers, and the recommendation of the committee in light of that imbalance was to do what we thought was best for students,” he said during the meeting. 

Stefanie Adams said the board members should have voted against the calendar when it was originally presented.

“I don’t think it is responsible leadership to sit up here, six months later, and say, ‘Well, I should have done a better job reading,’” Adams said. “I approved it because I believe in the recommendation that came from the committee; I still stand by that recommendation, and I’m also not against looking at a different change for 2023-2024.” 

Board members Stephanie Walker and Judy Justice admitted they should have paid closer attention when the calendar came before the board, but cited late-night exhaustion for the oversight.

“We didn’t vote on the issue until 10:30 that night,” Justice said. 

Justice made a motion to amend the calendar to end the first semester before Dec. 31, but no other board member seemed to agree with the decision. Walker said she thought the issue should be discussed, and the motion was withdrawn and replaced with a motion to hold a special meeting on the subject. 

“If we made a mistake and we say we can’t fix it, there’s something wrong with us sitting up here,” Justice said during the meeting.

While McManus was hesitant about changing the schedule after the start of the school year, even though he wanted to, he and Pete Wildeboer agreed to discuss the matter, to the scattered applause of audience members Tuesday night.  

The board will hold the special meeting on Sept. 12 at 2 p.m.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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