Chicago kids pay the price for schools that start too late in the fall

Students in other school districts get three more weeks to prep for high-stakes tests like the SAT.

SHARE Chicago kids pay the price for schools that start too late in the fall
Students at Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep High School in Bronzeville get their class schedules on the first day of school in this 2016 file photo.

Students at Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep High School in Bronzeville get their class schedules on the first day of school in this 2016 file photo.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

As another school year comes to a close, I am hopeful when I hear the talk about the need for equity in Chicago Public Schools, from both Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CEO Janice Jackson.

So far, the discussion is focused on equity within the district — a Herculean task in itself. But there is a cost-free move CPS could make to give our students equity with suburban districts and other large urban districts: A shift in the calendar so that students start school weeks earlier.

Under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS extended the school day and year so students’ time in the classroom would be on par with many other districts. But the additional time was added to the wrong part of the school year — the end. Students now attend school through the third week of June.

OPINION

Instead, that time should have been tucked onto the beginning of the year, and here’s why. Other districts, including some suburban ones and big-city districts like Los Angeles and Miami-Dade County, start school in mid-August instead of after Labor Day, as CPS does. This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that national exams, like the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, all take place at the same time in all districts.

Students outside Chicago who start school in mid-August get a three-week head start on instructional time, before these crucial tests.

That’s not equitable.

In addition, according to the Brookings Institute, summer learning loss hits low-income students — and most CPS students are lower-income — the hardest, especially in reading. Our students are already at a disadvantage compared to middle or upper-class students, and three fewer weeks to prepare for high-stakes tests worsens the problem.

Here’s another reason a calendar change makes sense: Currently, finals weeks in CPS high schools comes after the winter break. In other districts that start in mid-August, finals are just before winter break (similar to many universities, where students take finals before their breaks). So CPS students take a break — and once again lose time in the classroom — right before they take important exams for their first semester.

Between 2010 and 2013, CPS experimented with an optional year-round calendar called “Track E” that began in early August and gave students a shorter summer break but more breaks throughout the school year. During those years, I worked both at TEAM Englewood and Lindblom Math and Science Academy. CPS let schools choose the traditional calendar or the year-round schedule.

As a teacher at two very different high schools (TEAM Englewood was a neighborhood school, Lindblom is a selective enrollment school), I saw the benefits of a shortened summer with more breaks during the school year. Students experienced less summer learning loss, and the schedule allowed for a finals schedule similar to colleges, with exams before breaks, not afterward. Teachers also had more time in between quarters and semesters to attend professional development courses, and reflect and improve their teaching. Schools didn’t have to pay for substitutes while teachers attend training, which they often do now.

CPS ended Track E because of some parents’ concerns about differing schedules among different schools. I share this example because it shows that CPS has been innovative in the past with the school calendar, and can be innovative again. A calendar change is a no-cost, simple solution that would make education in CPS more equitable with schooling in other districts.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year teaching veteran at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is National Board Certified and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

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