School calendars might look different for some Yakima Valley students in the future, with more breaks throughout the year and a shorter summer vacation.

The Toppenish and Highland school districts have approved modified schedules for the 2021-22 school year that will shorten summer break but include additional breaks throughout the school year, to limit learning loss. The Yakima School District also is looking at changes to its school calendar in the future.

The effort, which educators call a “balanced calendar,” shortens summer break from the traditional 11 or 12 weeks to six or seven weeks, with more frequent breaks during the rest of the year.

The model sets up designated times for additional learning opportunities to keep students from falling behind during the school year, said Mark Anderson, superintendent of the Highland School District.

“We feel good that we have 25 extra days of learning opportunities for our students,” he said.

Highland’s 2021-22 school calendar will maintain the 180 days that are in the traditional agricultural school calendar but will add three weeks that are optional learning opportunities for students. These intersession weeks are scheduled for the last week of October, the first week of January and the last week of March.

The intersession weeks are optional for both students and teachers, Anderson said. If students and families decide to not attend an intersession opportunity, then it’s a week off from school. Highland’s summer vacation will be eight weeks long.

While the idea of changing the traditional agricultural school calendar has been in discussion for years, learning loss due to the pandemic has created a push to bridge education gaps.

“We had talked about this before, but COVID gave us the opportunity to really take a look if we could put aside our own personal biases and sensibilities about how we view time and how we always view a calendar,” Anderson said. “We want to be able to make this sustainable.”

The Toppenish School District’s calendar has at least a week off school almost every month and a six-week-long summer break.

Toppenish students will have school 4 1/2 days a week rather than the traditional five. The second half of the day on Fridays will be used for clubs, sports programs, cultural awareness events and catch-up opportunities for students who are behind in their learning.

“Summer school has not been working well,” said John Cerna, superintendent of Toppenish schools. “Right now, we’re waiting until the end of the year to help a kid who is struggling at the beginning (of the school year). With the balanced calendar, every Friday afternoon we’ll be able to help kids get caught up instead of waiting until the end of the year.”

Yakima School District

The Yakima School District is in the early stages of considering calendar changes. The district hosted a virtual balanced school calendar summit earlier this month with about 300 participants from across the state.

“I think we need to take into consideration the impact of the length the current summer has on students who face socioeconomic challenges,” said Trevor Greene, superintendent of the district.

There are opportunity gaps when students are away from the classroom for 11 to 12 weeks during the summer and some don’t have the resources at home like books to keep up with their learning, said Martha Rice, president of the Yakima School District Board of Directors.

There is worry that a balanced school calendar might not fit the Yakima community’s needs, said John Cavanaugh, president of the Yakima Education Association.

“We definitely are still an agricultural-based community and I still think we need summer,” he said. “I know there’s a concern from high school teachers that if we shorten (the summer) too much, students might not show up for a few weeks or leave a few weeks early to go work to help support their families.”

The Yakima School District typically approves a calendar in late January for the following school year. The district is planning on collecting teacher, student and community feedback before making any schedule changes in 2022.

“I think the district needs to do a much better job of reaching out to parents to get feedback on what they would like to see,” Cavanaugh said.

A balanced school calendar would also change the professional lives of teachers, said Chris Reykdal, Washington superintendent of public instruction, at the balanced school calendar summit.

“We’re asking some of the most talented professionals in the world to burn out for nine and a half months,” he said. “This 1,700-hour job that is crammed into 180 days is torturous. This isn’t just about the needs of students but also creating an expectation for people coming into this profession that you don’t have to sacrifice your family, evenings and weekends under the promise of having time off in the summer.”

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