Students in the Southland may have a hard time lining up summers with their friends, as schools begin the 2012 academic year with extremely lop-sided instructional calendars. The administrators of some districts have cut instructional days in the school year in order to close funding deficits.
In June, LAUSD’s school board cut five instructional days from the 180-day instructional year. Superintendent John Deasy alluded to this in a back-to-school assembly last week at Washington Preparatory High School.
"I am very aware of challenges we face and they’re daunting," he said. "They’re huge, scary and seemingly impossible."
But in spite of "seemingly impossible" challenges, he urged students, teachers and administrators to continue improvements among English learners — both in the high school exit exam and in mandatory state testing.
California State University Fullerton education researcher Mark Ellis says LAUSD is not alone.
"Some districts have looked at [cutting calendars] ... as a way to balance budgets and mitigate some of the cutbacks in funding that have been put on public education rather than cut salaries," Ellis says.
The Newport Mesa Unified School District laid off dozens of teachers a couple of years ago and borrowed from its reserves this year to protect the 180-day instructional calendar, says Superintendent Frederick Navarro.
"The most important work that takes place in the district is in the day-to-day teaching and learning," says Navarro. "Yes, you want to cut days and you want to reduce the teaching staff if at all possible."
Newport Mesa increased class sizes when it dismissed teachers, but its student-to-teacher ratio remains lower than the Orange County average.
Two years ago, Rowland Unified in the San Gabriel Valley cut two instructional days to compensate for lost support from the state.
"It was very, very painful the year that we had two less days of instruction," recalls Superintendent Maria Ott. "And we worked really, really hard to make additional reductions so that we wouldn’t have to do it again."
The district closed two schools the year after that to help close a budget gap, and borrowed millions of dollars from its reserve fund this year to protect its 180-day instructional calendar.
Cutting the school calendar or increasing class sizes to make up for funding cuts is choosing between two evils, says scholar Mark Ellis.
"I don’t think you can say which is worse," he says. "We’ve seen a step away from valuing public education for how important it is to our society. It’s happening not only in this state but across the country."
When it comes to other countries, the academic year typically lasts between 180 and 200 days (although Japan requires 240).
One upside to the calendar changes this academic year, Ellis says, is a general shift to an earlier start date. He says that’ll allow teachers and students more time to prepare for standardized tests in the spring.