The school year is just half over. Rene Paschal, principal at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School, says the school's modified school calendar has worked well for everyone from school children to teachers to parents. The modified calendar adds 20 optional extended learning days to the school calendar and shortens the summer vacation to 5-6 weeks. He said a number of schools around the country are using a modified calendar but Tucker is the first and only school in Alexandria to use it.
School started this year on Aug. 6 and will end June 24 at the same time as the other schools. This leaves a 6-week break during the summer this year. Paschal says that the students don't lose as much knowledge over this time period as during a normal summer break, and the intersessions also offer the opportunity for the students to get more instruction.
Optional two-week intersessions are offered from Oct. 19-30 and March 28-April 8. About 600 of the 750 students take the option to sign up for the intersessions.
Pam Tiemeyer, intersession coordinator, says the intersessions are separate from the regular school calendar. A child can be invited to remediation or choose an enrichment class. There is a charge of $125 for the intersessions or $10 for students who receive reduced price lunches. The remedial classes are split into two learning periods each day with one devoted to remediation and the other an elective of arts/PE.
Because students struggle with basic facts, Paschal says every day there is a 15-minute drill: "You could be going to play soccer but first you're going to spend 15 minutes doing math."
Enrichment classes offer a variety of experiences. Tiemeyer said one popular choice was Tango Soccer: A Taste of Argentina where the performing group Quintango taught the students about Argentina and how soccer and the tango use similar steps. At the end of two weeks, the youngsters put on a performance for the school and invited guests. Tiemeyer said other classes focus on world travelers with one on French culture, geography and food. "Since we have such a diverse culture here, the kids like the country classes," she said.
Another option is service-oriented where the older students learn to be a tutor. "This is hugely popular and not just the exceptional students participate. It is an area where some of our special ed kids shine," Tiemeyer said, "and the younger kids love cooking. They read a book like 'Green Eggs and Ham' and then they make it. In one class Home Depot came and helped them learn how to build something by measuring and constructing."
Paschal said the students produce the Tucker Today show, which is broadcast every morning before school starts. Paschal says the students read the school menu for the day, the birthdays, weather and other events." He said one father takes two weeks off work to come and teach one of the intersessions on how to make videos, special effects and write scripts for the morning show. These are interspersed in Tucker Today throughout the year.
This modified calendar began in 2003 after a process of garnering community and parental support and teacher input. They were required to get at least 75 percent parental buy-in to move ahead with the proposal as well as approval by the School Board.
"Teachers are given the option on whether to teach the extra 20 days but it is extra income and most of them like to do it," Paschal said.
But this isn't like regular school. A teacher must present a proposal for an enrichment intersession class and have it approved. Tiemeyer said, "I wondered if the kids would resent starting school in early August while their friends are still enjoying summer. But our kids love it here. And their summers aren't all that exciting so they would rather be here.” She added that the students haven't been out of school that long when they return in August so by the third day of school they are up and running without the learning lag.
Paschal said they are always tweaking the program. In the beginning, the intersessions were mandatory but free. Now they are optional but everyone pays something. The other major change was incorporating some academic element even in arts and athletics. It used to be that students just made a choice and got it, "but over the years we realized it is a school, not a summer camp." Paschal said, "It's difficult to prove that test scores have increased as a result of the modified calendar but teachers anecdotally say they can see the difference."