As School Board members prepare for the upcoming budget season, Superintendent Morton Sherman is suggesting the school system go back to the drawing board on “intersession” classes — the five weeks of instruction offered between semesters at the city’s two year-round schools. At issue is about $612,000 worth of annual expenditures at two elementary schools, Tucker Elementary School and Mount Vernon Community School.
“We feel this would pose a significant challenge to our continued success,” said Ramee Gentry, PTA president at Tucker. “There’s a lot of concern about this proposal because many of the parents at Tucker feel that we have a lot invested as a community in this.”
Earlier this month, Sherman outlined a plan that would reduce the five weeks of intersession classes at Tucker and Mount Vernon to three weeks. That would create hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of savings, which would then be distributed more broadly throughout the system. Sherman declined to comment, but a Jan. 5 letter to students, parents, teachers, principals and School Board members reveals some of his thinking on how the other schools would be given an opportunity to make systemic changes.
“Schools will submit proposals to extend the school day or year to address their academic achievement needs, as defined in their School Education Plans and the division’s strategic plan,” Sherman wrote. “Schools that apply for these funds and wish to operate on a modified calendar will pursue a two to three-year phased approach to full implementation.”
Sherman plans to formally present the proposal to School Board members later this week.
THE CONCEPT OF INTERSESSIONS first originated in 2002, when former Alexandria Superintendent Rebecca Perry presented the idea of “modified school calendars” to principals throughout the system. By abandoning the traditional school calendar, which includes a lengthy summer break, Perry argued that students could be offered a series of “intersession” classes between the semesters. Tucker was the first to adopt the program in 2004.
“The initial implementation at Tucker Elementary has been extremely successful,” said Perry as she introduced her budget in early 2005.
So she expanded the program to Mount Vernon, budgeting about $810,000 to implement the program in two elementary schools. It was a decision to implement modified school calendars — known by the acronym MSC — created a wellspring of opposition and support. A letter of opposition was signed by 78 parents, which was countered by a letter in support signed by 55 parents.
“We have grave doubts that the stated objectives of a MSC are achievable,” the letter in opposition explained. “MSC will put our children out of sync with their community and with the nation.”
“The bottom line is we want our children to reach their highest potential and we believe year-round learning makes sense for our particular school,” the letter in support explained. “MSC offers something for every child in the school.”
“We just haven’t seen the increases in student achievement. Nobody wants to keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.”
— School Board member Mimi Carter
THESE DAYS, THE RESULTS of the experiment are unclear. The original scope of the program has been reduced from $810,000 in 2005 to $612,000 in 2011. And although many parents say they valued the enrichment their children gained in the “intersession” classes, which include everything from remedial math to Greek mythology, the investment never had the payoff that school officials wanted as a payoff.
“We just haven’t seen the increases in student achievement,” said School Board member Mimi Carter, a former PTA president at Mount Vernon. “Nobody wants to keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.”
Many parents say they strongly support the intersession classes at the two schools, previewing what may be a dramatic clash in the coming weeks. Several parents have already spoken out against the proposal earlier this month, and more are expected after Sherman formally presents the proposal to School Board members this week. The coming weeks are likely to see parents clashing with administrators and board members over the value of maintaining the current level of funding for five weeks of intersession classes.
“Our community will be speaking out in favor of keeping five weeks of intersessions,” said Hal Cardwell, current PTA president at Mount Vernon. “It’s an issue of where you want to spend your resources, and School Board members have competing priorities. But parents here are overwhelmingly in favor of five weeks of intersessions.”