Across Washington, more than 45 school districts have studies or implementations underway for new balanced calendars that spread school breaks more evenly across the school year.
The primary aims of a balanced calendar are to reduce the number of consecutive days or weeks in a row that students are out of school, reduce the well-documented summer learning loss, and increase student learning overall. For these reasons, a redesigned school year is part of State Superintendent Chris Reykdal’s long-term vision for Washington’s K-12 public schools.
Educational leaders have long studied the potential benefits of modified school calendars. For example, a shorter summer break means less review time at the beginning of the school year and more time to teach new material. Balanced calendars also build in time for intensive learning opportunities called intersessions, which are held during school breaks. With intersessions occurring throughout the year, students who need additional support receive the help they need in a timely manner, which prevents them from falling even further behind. It also can reduce the need for summer school, which can have a stigma associated with it.
Several other benefits are also possible, and they will vary with the uniqueness of each district. Secondary benefits may include reducing transportation needs, creating the ability to accommodate celebrations or cultural events, and adjusting to local harvest schedules.
Research regarding the effectiveness of balanced calendars spans back to the 1980s, but the most seminal study on this subject was completed in 1996 with the work of Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsey, and Greenhouse.1 Their meta-analysis found gains in student performance, and corroborating studies continue today.
Interest in balanced school calendars gained momentum after the pandemic disrupted learning and widened opportunity gaps. In 2021, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) made the decision to leverage federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to create a grant program to help districts explore, and potentially implement, balanced school calendars. The balanced calendar initiative is led by OSPI, with partners from multiple state and local education agencies along with consultants Drs. David Hornak and James Pedersen to bring support and advice to participating districts.
Forty-five Washington school districts received grants in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Grantees also received hands-on support and technical assistance from the Association of Educational Service Districts (AESD).
“Balanced calendar is one approach to reduce learning loss,” explained Dr. Jon Mishra, OSPI Assistant Superintendent. “It must fit the needs of the district.” He added grantees can study the modified calendar without implementing it under the grant.
A variety of balanced calendar models offer districts flexibility to meet local needs. All models incorporate a shorter summer break and retain a 180-day school year.
Some of the earliest adopters of the balanced calendar come from Central Washington and are served by ESD 105, led by Superintendent Kevin Chase, a supporter of the approach. Three districts shared stories that reflect the many reasons schools seek a balanced calendar and some of the challenges they face.
The Mount Adams School District adopted a balanced calendar to decrease learning loss. District leaders reported one challenge was to find teachers willing to work during intersessions. They suggested getting community input and creating a calendar based on students’ needs.
The Toppenish School District saw a need for academic intervention to be held during the regular school year rather than waiting for the summer. Toppenish indicated some of the obstacles they faced included working around the state testing schedule, end-of-year reporting dates, and releasing of grants. Some of the solutions to these obstacles included creatively working with federal and state funding.
The Union Gap School District adopted a balanced calendar to address staff and student burnout. They indicated one significant obstacle to implementation was educating the community to understand that a balanced calendar did not include any virtual instruction. This district chose to start small by only having breaks of five days rather than two or three weeks and to include at least six weeks of summer break.
Mishra said understanding and addressing community concerns is key to successful implementation. A balanced calendar can impact everything from childcare providers to interscholastic activities. “The main strategy… is to listen and hear folks out,” he added.
Freeman School District in Spokane County is doing just that. Superintendent Randy Russell shared a bit about their process. “Our journey exploring the balanced calendar continues to be a learning experience. We have met with several districts to learn about their success and challenges. We are thankful for this opportunity to consider what is best for our students, staff, and families.”
This article was authored in coordination with:
Dr. David G. Hornak
Superintendent, Holt Public Schools
Executive Director, National Association for Year-Round Education (NAYRE)
Dr. Jon Ram Mishra
Elementary, Early Learning, and Federal Programs (EELFP)
Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)
Dr. James M. Pedersen
Superintendent, Essex County Schools of Technology
Author of Summer versus School: The Possibilities of the Year-Round School
This article is from the Fall 2023 issue of Direct. Visit wssda.org/direct to see other recent issues.