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An inside look at how the 2018-2019 district calendar was adopted

Jake Lefkovitz, Staff Reporter

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On April 24, 2017, something unexpected happened at the Township High School District 113 Board of Education meeting. What had been expected was a quick vote to approve the 2018-2019 public school calendar clean, with no amendments: instead, concerns that had been read into the record during the April 12th discussion of the calendar were pressed. Various attempts were made at reconciliation, but each failed. When debate closed, the motion to adopt the calendar clean, without any amendments, passed with six ayes to one nay.

Moving exams was—for a time—just a lingering concern. Yet as early as February 2016, there were indications that it was being explored. “Various board members expressed a desire to look into systems that would allow [the schools] to do final exams prior to winter break,” said Deerfield High School social studies department chair Dr. Richard Grady.

The District Calendar Committee came out of that desire. There were 14 members drawn equally from Deerfield High School and Highland Park High School, as well as four liaisons representing School Districts 106, 109, and 112. The chairman was Dr. Tom Koulentes, then HPHS Principal. Another committee member was Mr. Benjamin Palmberg. Talking about how he came to join the committee, he stated that he responded to an email from DHS Assistant Principal Mr. Joseph Taylor looking for volunteers. After that, he received an email from Dr. Koulentes inviting him to the first committee meetings.

Those would be the two planning meetings held in May 2016. “Some work had been done prior to that first meeting, some background work,” said Palmberg. At that first meeting, the committee determined the purview of all the various subcommittees, while at the second meeting the committee “started talking about giving some collective direction to some of those subcommittees,” he continued.

All meetings of the general committee were held either at HPHS or DHS. A typical general meeting of the committee would last, according to Palmberg, a little bit under two hours. Subcommittee meetings also took place at either location, or frequently over the phone. In late 2016, the design process for the first survey began as other subcommittees began reaching out to outside stakeholders. “I was on the … Summer Experience [Sub]committee, where we were [charged with] determining what a change in schedule would do … to what kids do during the summer,” said Palmberg.

The first survey was administered over October 2016. District staff weighed in first on October 11th: according to the committee report to the board, 49% of approximately 650 staff gave responses. Next, the students were queried, first from DHS on October 18th and then HPHS on October 24th: 66% of 3,766 students gave responses. Finally, from October 26th to November 2nd, the survey was open to parents/guardians: 20% of an estimated 3,066 unique households gave responses.

“[The committee] had a general sense [that] the community, in particular, would like to have exams before winter break. So, with that as our guiding principle, then we looked at what are some potential calendars that might accomplish this,” said Dr. Grady with regards to the first survey data. Two options emerged: one maintained balanced semesters at the expense of making the first day of attendance earlier while the other preserved the first day of attendance by accepting unbalanced semesters.

Both options, along with the traditional calendar, were presented in the second survey, which was uniformly administered from January 11th to January 24th, 2017. Student and staff participation in the survey both dropped by more than twenty percentage points while parent/ guardian participation rose by five percentage points.

After discovering through this survey that the unbalanced semesters option carried a plurality of students and staff, and a majority of parents/guardians, the committee decided to turn towards implementation in its third survey. “The reason that the third survey was targeted at staff was because … [the committee was] looking more specifically at how teachers would have to react to [moving onto an unbalanced system],” affirmed Dr. Grady.

In that survey, staff were presented with two calendar options. Both held first semester exams before winter break. The first option accepted the resulting imbalance in the semesters while the second option included nine instructional days of first semester after winter break to preserve balanced semesters.

When the results of this staff survey came back, they showed that nearly three-quarters of staff preferred the unbalanced option over the balanced one. With this now established, Dr. Koulentes began crafting the committee’s report to the board that recommended that the District adopt an unbalanced semester system with first semester exams before winter break.

The two committee members tapped to present the committee report were Dr. Grady and Dr. Koulentes. “[You] kinda summarize the main points and provide links to the data if [the Board members] want to go and do a little homework,” said Dr. Grady of his presentation philosophy.

At the February 13th board meeting, Dr. Grady and Dr. Koulentes were before the board for nearly fifty minutes as an item on the board’s discussion agenda. Immediately after, the District Calendar Committee dissolved, but the process continued. At a subsequent board meeting on February 27th, the board, by a four to two vote, moved to direct the administration to draw up the 2018-2019 academic calendar in accordance with the recommendations given by the calendar committee.

The administration did so in consultation with the District Advisory Committee, adopting a variant of the draft calendar the calendar committee had submitted for adoption that moved first semester exams a day forward. This final draft also changed it so that final exams were no longer split by a weekend between the last two school days in May and the first school day in June, instead taking the first three school days in June for final exams with no weekend interruption.

This draft calendar was then introduced as a discussion item at the April 12th meeting of the board, setting the table for the authorizing vote on April 24th. After some deliberation in September, the board indicated on October 16th that it would not pursue making Columbus Day a student attendance day. On October 30th, by a voice vote, the 2018-2019 public school calendar was officially adopted.

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An inside look at how the 2018-2019 district calendar was adopted