A group of Mt. Vernon Community School first and second grade students were treated to a memorable reading period at lunchtime last Friday when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and E.P.A. administrator Lisa Jackson stopped by the Del Ray school.
While Fridays visit was the last event in a summer-long series promoting year-round learning, the cabinet members Alexandria field trip was their first to an actual school and not without good reason.
Unlike most children in the city and across the country, the Mt. Vernon students have already been in school since the beginning of August and operate on an untraditional, modified-calendar system.
Duncan, the former CEO of Chicagos public schools and a huge fan of extended-year learning opportunities, said, Coming here is a bit of a chance to spotlight modified calendar schools like Mt. Vernon.
Their modified academic calendar first used in Alexandria at Samuel Tucker Elementary school means that summer is about half as long as most of their peers.
The normal nine- or 10-week summer break is spread throughout the year and, among other things, helps to minimize the information-loss so common with students returning from vacation.
Its heartbreaking to me that you have students reach a certain point in June and come back in September and theyre further behind than when they left, Duncan said. What you want to do is give every child a chance to be successful and our academic calendar generally is based upon the agrarian calendar and not too many kids are working the fields these days.
I think, frankly, we have an out-dated idea of what a school should be.
In Alexandrias modified calendar schools, students also have the opportunity to extend their year by forgoing certain portions of mid-year breaks. During these periods, referred to as intersessions, students can engage in either enrichment or remedial support for $25 per session, with exceptions given to some students.
Intersessions, adding up to 25 more days to the school year, have proved to be a remarkably popular option at Mt. Vernon, where 98 percent of students participate at least once.
Were watching places like [the Mt. Vernon school] around the country, Duncan said. Schools like this really help to be a model.
Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman called the modified calendar system at Mt. Vernon and Samuel Tucker a very positive thing for those two school communities.
In the schools, teachers notice less of what they call a summer hangover when their kids come back to school after summer break not to mention how the shorter summer keeps information fresher for the educators too.
Youre not spending as much time dealing with procedures and routines at the beginning of the year because the kids havent had a chance to forget, said Jennifer Fisher, a Mt. Vernon first grade teacher.
It actually enables you to jump right in, she said. Youre targeting instruction within the first two weeks as opposed to the traditional calendar where youre spending all of September and sometimes part of October just trying to get them familiar with school again.
Fisher said that, ultimately, even if the longer summer is desirable for teachers, Mt. Vernons different schedule offers comparable time off at different times of the year and also packs the professional satisfaction of better serving students needs.
When youre putting students first, of course Im going to acquiesce to the scenario thats best for kids, Mt. Vernon principal Scott Coleman said.
Fisher agreed, saying, As a teacher, I prefer the year-round calendar. Personally I would prefer the traditional calendar so I could travel with my family longer over the summer, but its not about me.
Coleman and Fisher both acknowledged their programs other advantages, ones that their young students who are simply eager to get back with their friends probably dont think about.
Some households may not have the money to necessarily invest in a lot of these summer camps because camps are very expensive, Fisher said. For children in that position over the summer who cant necessarily participate in those activities, knowing that they have someplace to go, school, doesnt give them the time to feel bad.
With Alexandrias diverse public school demographics, needs and strains on existing resources, Sherman said that in the months to come school leaders will be exploring other innovative ways to get the most from their students in a changing educational environment.
I believe that here in Alexandria, as we look at increased enrollment we have to keep up with plans for improved programs, Sherman said, citing the effectiveness of the schools modified calendar program as one option to be considered at other schools in the city, in addition to continuing discussion of K-8, K-12 and even year-round school models.
This is not just thinking outside the box, Sherman said. Its building a brand new box.