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Nothing by Accident: School Calendars Rule the Day

Thursday, May 4, 2017  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Let every man be master of his time.

William Shakespeare


Life offers few guarantees, but in school life, count on the bell ringing and students showing up to learn every day. The school calendar plays a crucial role in day-to-day operations, and determining vacations and other major events requires a group effort from school leaders. Find out how some SAIS schools master their calendar process each year and make decisions to serve the greater good in their communities.

Assembling the school calendar each year requires a strong team. Typically a group of administrators gathers to discuss school events and vacations, and where to place them, while one person enters all of the information into a single document. Even if the calendar is shared with multiple people while in the works, allow only one person to access the file. “Don’t make changes on top of each other,” advised Jennifer Jackson, lower school principal at The First Academy in Orlando, FL.

Jackson heads her school’s calendar program, which starts in October of each year. Before her team meets, she looks at the vacation days for Orange County schools and tries to match her school’s vacations for Thanksgiving, winter break, and spring break if possible. “Years ago, we got feedback from parents about aligning with the public schools and we try to honor that,” Jackson explained. A number of school parents work in the county school system.  

She consults with her athletic director about homecoming and tentatively schedules other school events based on the previous year’s calendar. The school aims to start the year on the second Wednesday in August and conclude the year by the Friday before Memorial Day, totaling 170 school days. She shares the document with her leadership team, who can make comments only on the Google Doc. At a quarterly team meeting, the school leaders review the calendar and, if approved, the school publishes the calendar to the school community in January.

At Athens Academy in Athens, GA, school leaders publish the next year’s calendar in October each year, giving parents ample time to make arrangements for school breaks, of which there are several. “We communicate very early so parents can plan ahead and get comfortable with it,” said Head of School John Thorsen. “We realize how hard our people work, and the holidays are well placed to give people a break. We have a break every month of the year and we encourage people to take it.”

Sometimes those breaks occurred at the most fortuitous times. This past January, a number of students contracted the flu. The MLK Day holiday gave students a day off to heal and gave the school time for a thorough cleaning on campus.

With a strong desire for more frequent days off during the year, Athens Academy takes a number of long weekends, as does its neighbor in town, the University of Georgia. Since 15% of the school population has an affiliation with the university, such as a parent or spouse who works there, or an older sibling who attends, “We pay close attention to their calendar,” Thorsen said. “We want families to be able to be together, and it also helps with recruiting teachers and staff in town.”

Athens syncs its spring break with UGA and, starting next year, will close for a full week at Thanksgiving. The first week of school starts on a Tuesday, and the first day back after winter break usually falls on a Tuesday or Wednesday. The school holds 15 professional days for its faculty, including pre-planning, though the Monday before the first day of school is a day off. No teachers are required to report prior to August 1. “Our leadership team refuses to start structured meetings until August,” Thorsen said.

Like The First Academy, Athens Academy usually does not have to deal with dramatic weather situations, but many other schools build in a few extra days to account for snow closings, or for many SAIS schools, potential hurricane days.

At St. Andrew’s School in Savannah, GA, the school calendar totals 180 days as a hurricane or flood-related closing is a real possibility each year. Head of School Dr. Kelley Waldron works backwards from the end of the school year in structuring the calendar. “It’s important to our community – both the school and the greater Savannah area – to be out of school by the Friday before Memorial Day,” she said.

The school will take three-day weekends for most federal holidays, two weeks for winter break, one week at spring break, and three days at Thanksgiving. “The feedback we’ve received is that people would rather have smaller incremental breaks than a week at Thanksgiving,” Waldron said. “It’s been healthier in the life of the school.”

In November each year, department and division heads submit dates for their programs and events to Waldron’s assistant, who plots all on a master calendar that the leadership team reviews in January. Once approved, the calendar of start/end dates and holidays is sent to parents with re-enrollment contracts. By June, the school has determined details for each program and event with times and locations. The school publishes the calendar online and in its app. Parents receive reminders about important school dates throughout the course of the school year.

When making a dramatic change to the calendar, such as moving spring break week, schools can never inform people early enough or too often. At Athens Academy this year, the school implemented an earlier dropoff time for one division and a later start for another. Several years ago, the school eliminated formal exams in December in favor of other forms of assessment. In both cases, the school communicated the change well in advance.

“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” Waldron said. “All the different areas of the school need to be talking to each other. Communicate with parents regularly, and put information in as many places as possible. People always appreciate advance notice.”

Incidentally, regarding the number of required school days, in the SAIS Accreditation Standards, Indicator 3.7 reads:

Plans a mission-appropriate academic calendar with a minimum of 170 days, or more if required by state law, during which students and teachers engage in teaching/learning activities. 

For more information, check out SAIS School and Team Resources.

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