From kindergartners with their brand new backpacks, to high school seniors anticipating graduation; Nebraska youth are heading back to school. But a small number of students started the school year more than a month ago.
Sixth graders in Shelli Mosser’s classroom in Ralston, Neb. are discussing inventions. The opinions on what’s most important range from television to airplanes and Mosser points out another., “If you think about the fact that we are in a nice air conditioned building, we wouldn’t have that without electricity.”
Having an air conditioned building is especially important at Ralston’s Mockingbird Elementary school. The academic year started in mid-July for a number of students attending on an optional calendar. Shelli Mosser has taught on the optional schedule for a number of years.
Other schools that have optional calendars:
More information on year-round schools:
“I love it. I think it is fabulous for the kids they come back and they are so ready to learn, they are excited to be there, they’ve had enough summer,” she said. “We have our first three week break the last two weeks of September and the first week of October and by then the kids, they’ve worked hard, they’ve put in the time and then they get a nice break and what I’ve found is when they come back from that three week break, they are like sponges again. They are so ready to learn again.”
Grand Island, Kearney and Fremont also offer an optional calendar at some of their schools. It’s about the closest any Nebraska school comes to a year-round calendar. Generally starting about a month before the traditional calendar, like Ralston’s Mockingbird school does, there are three week breaks at the end of the first and third quarters. That’s something parent Cindy Walters said works well for her young family including two kids who attend Mockingbird.
“Right about then they are ready for a break, they are tired of going to school every day, homework every day; even though they like that routine they are ready for a break and we look forward to it.”
The semester break and end of the school year are the same for optional and traditional calendar students. Mockingbird Principal Kathy Boeve said having two academic calendars brings challenges.
“Having two calendars in one building gets a little confusing at times and also it’s hard, it’s almost like having two schools in one building,” she said. “It’s hard sometimes to bring the staff together, to bring the kids together, because it seems like someone is always gone or getting ready to leave. So that’s probably the only big downside I see.”
Photo by Perry Stoner, NET News
Ralston's Mockingbird Elementary School has offered an optional calendar for nine years.
This year, the optional calendar adds about $13,000 to Ralston’s school budget for teachers and support staff. Enrollment is 82 students. That’s down from an average of about 125. Mockingbird has offered it for 9 years. Boeve said there are academic benefits for the students.
“The shorter summer break allows them to not lose as much of the knowledge that they’ve learned, “ she said. “I also think that by the time July comes around, our kids are ready to be back in school and they want a routine and they like learning so they might as well be here learning instead of sitting in front of the television.”
That’s something Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Joel agreed with. “When we give them three months off in the summer it’s probably the worst thing we could do for them.”
Before taking the lead position of the state’s second largest school district, Joel was Superintendent in Grand Island, one of the other districts in the state that offers an optional calendar. Joel says at 83 percent, Lincoln is a high graduation rate district and to improve, it’s going to take something significant like a different academic calendar, “We're not going to get to 95 percent doing things the way we do now, we're not going to go to teachers and say, ‘Okay, teach a little harder, maybe come up with a little more of an engaging lesson plan,’ but there’s 17 percent of the kids right now that are not connected.
“We think that the organization of time differently is one of the things we ought to be looking at for them,” he continued. “Our goal benchmark ought to be all kids being successful, so what do we have to put in place to do it? I would suggest that’s going to mean substantive change and make people uncomfortable. The optional calendar made a lot of people uncomfortable in Grand Island.”
Joel called changing the school calendar a change initiative; one that is significant and takes time to achieve.
“Education is something that everybody’s had, and it worked for them,” he said. “Change is really difficult in our world because people don’t want to experiment with education with their kids-now, you can experiment once their kids are out, ‘but don’t do it while my students are there.’
“And I’m basing this on 30 some years in the business and not Lincoln specifically,” he said. “When we embark on a major change initiative, like changing the calendar is a change initiative, changing the grading system is a change initiative, when we look at those kinds of things, there’s always a lot of push-back and it’s the pushback from people that have been educated successfully in a public school and they don’t know why we’re looking at it differently.”
Back at Ralston’s Mockingbird school, teacher Shelli Mosser said there’s another group of students who benefit from the optional calendar.
“A lot of our kids are English second language kids and this program is especially great for them because they are in the schools a little more and they are not speaking their home language for quite as long a period of time,” she said. “They come back and they are immersed again in the English.”
Principal Kathy Boeve agreed.
“One of the ways that children learn English is to be immersed in the English language. So the more time we spend in school where we speak English, we instruct in English we carry out our business in English, the more immersed they are in the language and the quicker they’ll pick it up, Boeve said. “If they have long breaks where they are not exposed to the English language it makes it a little more difficult or a little slower to pick it up.”
Cindy Walter’s son, Mathias, is one of Mosser’s sixth-grade students. The optional calendar is the only school calendar he’s known, “I like PE, music and science.” While he’s a good student, he still gives a typical sixth grader’s response to what he likes about the calendar.
“There’s a lot more breaks and bigger ones and you still have a good summer break”, he said about the summer break which is usually about six weeks long.
While the end-of-quarter breaks are longer for optional calendar students and teachers at Ralston’s Mockingbird Elementary, classroom hours are the same as those for the traditional calendar. State law has minimum requirements for classroom hours, but not for the number of days.