| | By Matthew Artz
If there's a hot trend in education, Oakland Unified seems compelled to give it a shot: First it was charter schools, then small schools, and now it's lots of schooling in August.
Starting next year, Oakland will once again move up the start of the school year—this time to the second week of August with classes likely ending in May.
It's only a week's difference, but it cements a redefinition of summer vacation over the past two decades that has upset some parents and confounded summer camps operators trying to serve students in districts whose school calendars have diverged.
The upcoming change in Oakland will result in its students starting school two weeks before their counterparts in Berkeley, which is starting to explore a far more drastic calendar readjustment.
"It's definitely going to be a big deal for us," said Josh Cohen, director of operations for Sarah's Science Camp, which draws most of its students from the two districts. "It's something we wish wasn't happening."
Oakland school officials pushed forward with the upcoming calendar shift for three reasons: Aligning the school year with the Peralta Community College District to make it easier for high school students taking classes at Peralta campuses; ending the fall semester before the winter break in December; and getting more instruction time before standardized tests, which take place in April and May.
District spokesperson John Sasaki said students tend to focus less once the tests are over. "This is a matter of trying to optimize the learning for our students every day that we can," he said.
Oakland parents unhappy about the shifting calendar are worried that their children will have limited summer camp and internship opportunities if school lets out in late May. Many are also nostalgic for the summer break they had as kids.
"I'm open to the possibility that there may be compelling reasons to move up the school year, but the justifications I've seen don't resonate with me," said Adrienne DeAngelo, the mother of a middle school student. "I think summer break should be over the summer. I've been upset with every additional week that my family's summer has been impinged upon."
Ken Rice, father of an elementary school student and former school board member, bristled at the idea that AP exams and state tests were helping drive the push to an earlier school year. "It's nuts," he said. "School should be about kids enjoying learning, not standardized test scores."
Both parents have an ally in Oakland school board member Jody London, who wanted to see the district gather more community input before further moving up summer vacation.
In May, she facilitated a meeting between a few dozen parents and Kyla Johnson-Trammell—who officially became the district's superintendent on July 1—about the calendar change. But that was the extent of the outreach, London said. In June, the school board approved the schedule change 4-2, with London and board member Nina Senn dissenting.
"I might be OK with changing the school calendar," London said. "But I need to know that the community is OK with it and understands why the changes are being made."
Sasaki said there will still be time for parents to have input into the final day of the school year and mid-year breaks. But, he added, the school calendar has historically been hammered out with the teacher's union with minimal public input. "This is part of a labor issue," he said.
For decades, there wasn't much to haggle over. Like nearly every district in the Bay Area—and across the country—Oakland schools started after Labor Day until about 15 years ago.
With President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind emphasizing standardized tests, many districts started moving up the start of school to increase instructional time before the tests, said John Rury, a historian of American education at the University of Kansas.
While the Northeast has mostly held firm to starting school in September, many districts in the South, including Atlanta's, rearranged their calendars to start classes during the first week in August.
In the Bay Area, school calendars have become a free-for-all. Next year, Oakland Unified will start the second week of August, the Alameda and West Contra Costa school districts will likely start the following week, and Berkeley the week after that.
"It makes it very hard to plan," said Emily Schnitzer, director for Camp Kee Tov. The camp, operated out of Congregation Beth-El in Berkeley, runs two four-week programs, including one in August that she said will be "basically unenrollable" for Oakland families.
There is no simple solution, Schnitzer said, because many of the UC students who serve as counselors are still on campus in June. "I won't have staff if I move it up," she said. "But if I leave it the way it is, I will have families who won't be able to come."
East Bay camps could be in for an even more jarring blow in a few years. Berkeley Unified has started preliminary discussions about shortening summer vacation to four to six weeks and adding vacation time during the school year.
The primary goal would be to help lower-performing students, who are more likely to fall behind during long summer breaks. "It's really difficult to have those kids drop off our grid for two to three months and not know if the supports they're getting in the summer are the right supports," said Pasquale Scuderi, associate superintendent for educational services. He added that Berkeley would seek community input before making such a major change.
Rury added that there is research backing up Berkeley's concerns about what's known as the "summer slide."
But recent history also shows that moving to a more balanced school year is politically dicey, with the strongest pushback coming from wealthier parents who prize their summer camps and vacations.
"Guess who's showing up at the school board meetings?" Rury said. "They're pushing the political buttons."
Sasaki said Oakland Unified has no plans to consider shortening the summer break.
Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland teachers' union, said students would benefit from a shorter summer, but, for now, teachers are mostly satisfied with the upcoming calendar. As a concession, the district agreed to start paying teachers in August, she said.
Gorham said Oakland parents, who often have been in the dark about upcoming school year schedules, have reason to be happy, too. The new calendar will be in place through 2020. "Certainty is an advantage," she said. "You can plan your European vacation three years ahead now. Because we know when school is beginning and when it's ending."