Back on schedule

Back on schedule
(File photo)

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Students at Mount Vernon Community School will get an extra month of summer vacation this year, with the institution reverting back to a traditional schedule.

While the school’s year-round calendar was well intentioned, the initiative was underfunded in recent years and contributed to a glut of specialty programming, said principal Peter Balas.

Specifically, the schedule — which featured several breaks throughout the year as well as two-week experiential learning periods — interfered with the school’s dual-language program, undermining efforts to make all students literate in English and Spanish.

“Basically, students take half of their day in English and half of their day in Spanish,” Balas said. “[But] we would have to pause it for the experiential program [in which community professionals taught vocational offerings]. I found that to be a disruption to the learning and the smooth flow of the school year.”

And the year-round schedule has become harder to fund in recent years because of steady budget cuts, Balas said.

“Before I got here, they also changed the requirement, saying that all teachers who taught intersession needed to be certified, which changed it drastically,” he said. “And it used to be funded for six weeks, but then it was cut to five and then to four, and currently the board has only funded three weeks. It’s taken quite a few setbacks, and I think the reason it was originally started is no longer there.”

According to state Standards of Learning results, 53 percent of Mount Vernon Community students tested proficient in reading last year, but only 32 percent of Hispanic students succeeded. Similarly, while 50 percent of the student body was proficient in math, just 34 percent of Hispanic children kept pace.

Balas plans to use dollars slated for the year-round calendar to bolster the dual-language initiative, as well as provide a three-week summer camp for students. Unlike the mid-year experiential learning programs, Balas said the summer camp would be more beneficial for students since organizers can tap into the school system’s teaching staff.

“Some advantages to the summer program rather than during the year is, for one, staffing reasons,” the principal said. “We’ll have a greater pool of certified teachers to choose from. And we can link it to the dual-language program, rather than doing something totally separate from it.”

Parents feel mixed on the death of the year-round schedule. Debbie Altenburg, president-elect of the Mount Vernon Community School PTA, trusts Balas is doing what’s in the best interest of her children, even though she’s sad to see the program disappear.

“Overall, I’m a little disappointed that they jettisoned the modified calendar, because I think it worked for our family,” she said. “But Mr. Balas came in as a change agent for the school to examine all the programs. … He made a compelling case and held a lot of community meetings on it.”

Leocadia Conlon, speaking as a parent and not as president of the PTA, believes the year-round schedule needed to go. As a native of Hawaii — where year-round schooling is the norm — she described Mount Vernon’s version as a shell of a proper modified calendar program.

And Alexandria City Public Schools had trouble addressing the school’s basic needs in time for an August 1 start date, Conlon said.

“They just weren’t ready for us,” she said. “Our security system wasn’t working, and the elevator wasn’t working, so you couldn’t get textbooks up to the classrooms. There were students in wheelchairs and crutches who couldn’t go upstairs.”

While supporters of year-round scheduling have argued that short breaks give struggling students opportunities to catch up with their peers, Conlon doesn’t buy that argument.

“Experts know you can’t remediate a kid in a two-week period,” she said. “Remediation has to be immediate, constant and consistent. And during the breaks, there’s no guarantee that a child will have the same teacher they had throughout the year.”

Samuel Tucker Elementary School will be the only city public school to open August 1. Mount Vernon Community students will start along with all other public school children after Labor Day.