Earlier start to school year in Champaign on board's agenda

Earlier start to school year in Champaign on board's agenda

CHAMPAIGN – Champaign high school students will be taking semester exams next Thursday and Friday. But that doesn't mean most of them were hard at work studying during their winter break.

"Over break, you hang out with friends and sleep all day and don't really study," said Centennial High School junior Amber Adams. "You don't really want to think about school that much. Then you come back and, 'Oh, I forgot what we're doing.' A lot of material gets lost."

"Just the weight of finals on your shoulders during break is kind of a hassle," agreed Centennial senior Sarah Anderson. "It's one of those things you dread. Who wants to study over Christmas break?

"You have to cram everything into two days (at the end of break) and it's really rushed," Anderson continued. "It's really hectic when you come back. There's a lot to do."

Next school year, Champaign students could take their semester exams and end their semester before winter break, and school could start three days earlier this August, under a proposed calendar for the 2008-09 school year.

The school board is scheduled to discuss the calendar at 7 p.m. Monday at the Mellon Administrative Center, 703 S. New St. It won't vote on the calendar until the February meeting.

It's a change many in the district would like to see. In December, teachers, support staff, parents, administrators and some students were asked about the proposed changes, and most were supportive.

"People recognize that having semester exams before winter break just makes more sense educationally," said George Stanhope, the district's director of elementary curriculum, gifted/talented classes and assessment. "But they also realize it's hot in August and there are some drawbacks to starting then, kids and teachers having to work in hot classrooms. You don't get your best learning then."

Most did not want to start much earlier in August, he said.

The proposed calendar has school starting on Aug. 19, the Tuesday of the second-to-last week of the month. Last fall, it started on Aug. 24, the Friday of that week.

The district scheduled some school improvement days early in the next school year. Students attend school in the morning only on those days, so that will help reduce the amount of time spent in the classroom during the heat of the day in late summer, Stanhope said.

Winter break would start at about the same time under the proposed 2008-09 calendar. School would end on May 27, compared to May 30 this year.

Stanhope said moving the end of the semester to December would make the spring semester about 10 days longer than the fall semester. That will require some adjustment for high school teachers of semester-long courses.

Other factors balance out that difference, though, Stanhope said, leaving both semesters with a similar amount of instruction time. With semester exams before winter break, teachers won't have to spend so much time at the end of the semester reviewing material before the exams as they do when the exams are after winter break, he said. Also, students take standardized tests in the spring, and teachers focus on preparing for the test for several days beforehand, taking some time away from regular instruction.

Those who attend the district's two balanced calendar schools, Barkstall and Kenwood, will also end their semesters before winter break. Stanhope said those schools will start at about the same time in July and get out a few days later than the other schools in May. He said their end date is not always the same as that of the regular calendar schools.

Centennial math teacher Jason Franklin believes changing the timing of exams will help students do better and improve attendance in December.

"I really believe moving exams before break is going to make the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas more productive for the teachers and the students," said Franklin, who had a group of students look at moving semester exams for a class project in 2006 and make a presentation to the school board on the advantages of such a change. "I'm always shocked how many kids are absent in the few days before break, because families decide to start break early or because they know they're not really doing anything right before break."

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