RALEIGH — A proposed pilot program making its way through the North Carolina legislature would allow Anson, Robeson and 18 other counties the flexibility to start the school year earlier while shortening the summer vacation for students.
The proposal is an effort to gather information on whether shifting the calendar can help improve test scores and if shortening summer vacation will hurt the state’s tourism industry.
House Bill 389, which passed 104-6 in the state House, would authorize the 20 school systems to begin the academic year two weeks earlier in August beginning in either 2018 or 2019. The state Board of Education and N.C. Department of Commerce would then study the academic and economic effects and, after three years, report the findings to the legislature.
Currently, North Carolina schools can start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. Charter schools and year-round schools are exempted.
“Robeson is excited to be included in the pilot program and we believe these possible changes to the start/end times of the school year could positively impact student achievement in the Public Schools of Robeson County,” Shanita Wooten, interim superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County, said. “We are in the initial stages of developing tentative calendar options as a result of the pilot program. We have a committee that includes cabinet members, district office staff, and principals who develop initial calendars for review and teachers provide input that is used to help finalize calendars that are presented to board members.”
In February, State Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, filed Senate Bill 56, which would also give local school boards more flexibility in their school calendar. McInnis is a former member of the Richmond County Board of Education.
If passed, McInnis’ bill would go into effect next school year. According to state records, the last action taken on the bill was a referral to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate.
When McInnis introduced his bill to the Senate, Anson County Superintendent Michael Freeman said he supported that bill.
“I definitely think that would be a good idea,” Freeman said in February. “I’d very much like to have that calendar flexibility. It would be very helpful since we’re trying to get into position, especially at the high school level, to align calendars close to the college and community college level.”
School districts have been trying to modify or repeal the school calendar law since it passed in 2004. School officials cite issues such as how the late August start means high school students are taking standardized tests after Christmas break on material they study the semester before. The new calendar would would shift that testing back before the break.
McInnis echoed that sentiment when he introduced his bill, and Freeman agreed.
“Senator McInnis is very much right,” Freeman said. “We would like to do everything we could to complete the semester before Christmas so that when students go home, they would hopefully have completed all of the end-of-semester exams and not have the challenge of worrying about exams after Christmas break. They could rest up and be ready to begin in January following Christmas, well-rested and excited about learning and ready for the second semester in the year.”
Freeman said he wanted even more flexibility than McInnis’ bill called for, asking for the two weeks that House Bill 389 would allow.
“Ideally for me, if we could have flexibility for two weeks back instead of one, it would make it really, really comfortable to do the calendar, in case we have inclement weather that causes us to miss or anything of that nature. It would be fine with me, and with our calendar, would make it even more ideal for us.”
There is also a belief that the shorter summer will mean students will have retained more from their previous year when school begins again.
“I think it’s a good study, a positive, especially if students can take exams prior to their Christmas break,” Rep. Charles Graham said. “They can take those exams when it is fresh in their minds. I just think it’s a better use of the calendar.”
Graham, a retired educator, was a co-sponsor of the bill alongside Republican Rep. Brenden Jones, both of whom represent at least part of Robeson County. The county’s other representatives, Democrats Garland Pierce (Scotland) and Ken Goodman (Richmond), also voted in favor, as did Union County Republican Rep. Mark Brody, who represents Anson.
The program would also attempt to more closely align the calendars of schools with that of community colleges and universities.
Freeman had the same idea in February following McInnis’ bill, saying that many high school students who are dual-enrolled at a community college have schedules that do not sync, or that students who graduate early in December may have to wait until the next year to start college if they have to wait to take their high school exams closer to Christmas.
“I think that in the future, with more opportunities with digital learning, we will have more and more students ready to start college courses sooner,” Freeman said at the time.
Previous efforts to adjust the calendar in such a way were opposed by private groups backed by the tourism industry. Proponents of the bill believe the study would prove there is no significant harmful effect.
“Such research would provide irrefutable evidence of individual communities that would not be economically harmed by school calendar flexibility and those communities where education advantages outweigh negative economic impacts,” House Bill 389 reads.
“I think it will be an adjustment for for the tourism industry, but after the first year I think they will be fine,” Graham said.
If the bill becomes law, it does not demand that the 20 selected counties take part. If a county chooses not to participate, it would be removed and replaced by another to give an overall representation of “the geographic, economic, and social diversity of the state.”
House Bill 389 passed the House in April and now sits in the Senate Rules Committee.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly. Reporter Imari Scarbrough contributed to this report.