Kalamazoo Public Schools looks to balanced calendar approach as a means to boost reading and increase graduation rates.

By Mitch Smith, MASA Communications Specialist 

The Kalamazoo Promise is an unprecedented experiment in community development that guarantees full college scholarships to potentially every graduate of the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS). This scholarship program is an especially powerful tool, transforming the surrounding community, a positive for the economy, healing the social fabric, and maximizing human capital. Find out more at: https://www.kalamazoopromise.com/

For superintendents looking to try an innovative and alternative approach to the traditional August to June school year with its long summer break, perhaps a pilot program could be one of the most reliable ways to make an informed decision for future district calendars, and move to boost graduation rates and stop the “summer slide.” 

Bringing a balanced calendar pilot program to two of Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) elementary buildings, Washington Writers’ Academy and Woodward School for Technology and Research, is an important step in supporting the important KPS district goals to improve achievement in reading, writing, and math, as well as boosting graduation rates. 

KPS chose two of its magnet elementary schools specifically because it made sense under the magnet model. They hope to make these two schools even more magnetic under the pilot program, attracting students, parents, and teachers who are interested in the balanced calendar model. Conversely, those who wish to still work and learn under the traditional calendar, have the option of other schools to attend. This minimizes the nervousness, anxiety, and pushback that could occur otherwise. 

KPS’s Summer Slide Reduction (SSR) pilot is an effort to reduce the length of the extended summer break, and by reducing that length, minimize the learning loss that takes place during that time away from learning. KPS is designing a calendar in the two elementary buildings that have the same number of days (180), built around additional breaks throughout the year and a shorter summer recess. The calendar also offers the opportunity for additional programs during intersessions to help students “catch up” or experience additional educational opportunities. 

“What we know is that the length of summer break is a real problem for kids. A lot of our kids don’t read in the summer and their reading levels deteriorate,” said Michael Rice, Superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools. “Research shows that the summer slide can consume a quarter of a year’s work for students and teachers to overcome the decline. If we can find a way to eliminate it, with all else being equal, we could gain a few months each year for students to learn new content, not relearning content. Our goal is to minimize the adverse impact of summer, permitting kids to largely start school where they ended at the conclusion of the preceding year.” 

When you do the math, the time spent re-teaching content puts students entering high school about 2-3 years behind students who are on a balanced calendar. If finding a reliable way to diminish, or eliminate the effects of the long summer layoff, it may be worth the effort it will take to experiment with the school calendar. 

Rice also believes the balanced calendar is good for teachers and administrators, as does Frank Rocco, Principal at Woodward School for Technology and Research.  

“One of the biggest impacts we are hoping to see is fresher teachers,” said Rocco. “More consistent and frequent breaks will allow teachers to catch their breath. It will, however, offer new challenges, be new to teachers and take a lot of flexibility, but we will learn by doing. And most importantly, we are hoping to see a lot less summer learning loss.” 

Why Choose a Pilot Program Approach? 

“The value of a pilot is that people know it is a work in progress, we have defined it as such. There is a real value to that,” said Rice. “We pilot most of our major innovations because we want to see where we see improvements at a small level, and what we need to improve before moving it up to a larger level.” 

“When we first began talking about this pilot, engagement with the teaching staffs and administrators in the buildings was essential,” said Rice. “We approached them with what we wanted to accomplish with this effort that included a shorter summer to equal less summer slide. In addition, we asked them to think about what sort of calendars might accomplish this on a short-term pilot basis?” 

They then engaged in the conversation surrounding their vision and expectations of what a balanced calendar would look like in their buildings and came up with additional ideas. They then involved the school board and board committees, who further explored those ideas, to the end where it became a board-approved pilot. 

Short-Term, Long-Term Learnings 

Rice is optimistic about not only what this pilot will show the community, but also what key learnings the current educational system as a whole may take away from this effort. 

In the short run, Rice believes they are going to see less deterioration in reading levels as a function of the summer break.  

“I think we will see results immediately, I think our teachers are going to find that when they begin to test the kids to establish their reading levels, they will find that those levels have deteriorated less. If that manifests itself year in and year out, we will be better off as a district,” said Rice. 

In the mid-range, Rice surmises they are going to see more kids reading closer to grade level throughout their school career. They will begin to see students who are able to master content that they would not have mastered otherwise. Ultimately, they will see students that are more likely to graduate from high school and by extension move on to college, utilizing the Kalamazoo Promise to fulfill their dreams for their future. 

“Over a period of years, you will see a collective impact here at KPS, and that will be students in a better place when entering high school, at grade level, and by extension be much more likely to graduate,” said Rice. 

Many districts are beginning to look to the balanced calendar approaches as one of the next possible big steps forward for schools in both academics and graduation; however, they will take effort and courage to implement. 

“When you are putting together something brand new, you have to work hard on it,” concludes Rice. 

This pilot program will be well worth looking at as it progresses to gain a better understanding of the effects of successfully educating and graduating students.