For school calendar better than MCPS’s, look elsewhere

Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006

Every year for the last five years, the Montgomery County Public Schools’ calendar has irritated me with its half days as full days, midweek teacher professional days and school starting before Labor Day. When I was a kid, we enjoyed those lazy last days of summer, and I have no memories of half days or midweek days off.

Over the summer, I learned some details about Fairfax County, Va.’s school calendar. In Fairfax, there are no half days posing as full days, no midweek professional days, and schools start after Labor Day. Most of all, Fairfax has three four-day weekends in its family-friendly calendar.

What a dream! An academic calendar that gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling. I imagined living in Fairfax, and planning what family vacations we might take on these three four-day weekends. Jamestown or the relatives in New Jersey. Oh, darn, back to reality. Let’s decide what to watch on TV when MCPS gives us a midweek day or half day off.

I started comparing the school calendars to see for myself just how much better Fairfax County has it. The Internet makes comparing school calendars easy. Just Google the name of the county or town followed by the keyword ‘‘schools” and the Web page for that school is usually the first entry displayed. Click on that, and within seconds you can be printing out that school’s academic calendar.

After comparing about 30 schools with MCPS, I have come to the conclusion that MCPS has without a doubt the most family-unfriendly and meanest academic calendar in the United States. It almost seems the result of a ‘‘Design an Irritating Academic Calendar” contest, and MCPS used the winning entry.

Let’s start with half days. MCPS counts half days as full days if lunch is served. This is probably the only place in the world where one-half equals one. MCPS has four half days (used for grading and administrative work) that are useless for any family activity. There is one on Sept. 27 (Wednesday), two on Nov. 9 and 10 (Thursday and Friday) and one on Feb. 27 (Tuesday).

‘Student holidays’

By contrast, in Fairfax, at the end of the first three marking periods, there are ‘‘student holidays” consisting of one or two full days off to form a long weekend. These holidays are on Nov. 6 and 7 (Monday and Tuesday), Jan. 25 and 26 (Thursday and Friday) and March 30 (Friday). That’s the Friday before spring break (how nice).

Fairfax County does actually have one half day, but its not for administrative reasons. It’s the Wednesday before the Thanksgiving holiday, and its sole, very nice purpose is to help facilitate travel plans for teachers and students.

Let’s move on now to the professional days. Fairfax County has none. Rather, it has the holidays described above, all neatly arranged to make three- or four-day weekends. Montgomery County has three ‘‘professional days” at the end of the marking periods. But two of these are on Wednesday (Nov. 1) and Tuesday (March 27) during the week, and so are rather useless from a family perspective. Amazingly, one is on a Monday (Jan. 22)! This must have been a mistake. Even so, it could have been joined with the Martin Luther King holiday a week earlier to create a four-day weekend. And there is, purely by chance, another three-day weekend because Yom Kippur falls on a Monday (Oct. 2) this year, but MCPS had little to do with planning this.

It would have been very easy for MCPS to move these midweek days to a Monday or Friday to form two three-day weekends but obviously the thought never occurred. The only other school system of the 30 or so that I examined that had any professional days in the middle of the week is tiny Fair Haven, N.J., but the rest of its calendar was so nicely crafted that it didn’t matter.

It would also have been easy for MCPS to combine the two consecutive half days to form a full day and thus another three-day weekend. Again the thought does not seem to have occurred.

Lastly, Fairfax schools do not begin until after Labor Day. This means that families in Fairfax have 11 more days of uninterrupted summer vacation than families in Montgomery County, and all this for just two more days of school in June (MCPS lets out on Thursday, June 14, and Fairfax lets out the following Monday.

There are absolutely no excuses for this academic calendar. Please, no bombast about Jewish holidays, teacher unions, marking periods ending in midweek, etc. Many other school districts have dealt with these same issues, and all have managed to create much better school calendars than MCPS.

Calendar is an insult

The MCPS calendar is an insult to students, parents and teachers. The Fairfax calendar says, ‘‘We care about you.” The MCPS calendar says the opposite. The Fairfax calendar was designed knowing that teachers, students and parents need some time off to relax and take a break from the rigors of academia.

All this begs the question: Who deserves the blame for this calendar? Every school calendar in every school district is created and⁄or approved by the local Board of Education. The answer then is the members of the Montgomery County Board of Education, who approved this piece of nastiness. My advice to the board is to revise this calendar (using Fairfax as a model) long before the November elections, and if they don’t, my advice to their political opponents is to make calendar reform (using Fairfax as a model) a major part of their plank. They’ll have my vote, and hopefully the votes of the thousands of irritated Montgomery County parents who are reading this.

The writer, of Bethesda, is a self-employed PC repairman. He has one child in middle school and another in high school.