Schedule could push exams after Christmas

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Last fall, some Mississippi schools began classes as early as Aug. 3.
In two years, they will have to wait an additional 15 days before opening their doors.
A new law prohibits the state’s public schools from starting any earlier than the third Monday in August, beginning in the 2014-15 school year. That language was approved by both chambers of the Mississippi legislature during the recently completed session and was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant on May 1.
The law aims to help tourism on the Gulf Coast by adding an extra couple of weeks of beach time for Mississippi children in August.
It also could make it more difficult for schools to complete their first semester before Christmas break, several superintendents said. That could mean that students would have to take their exams after the holiday.
“The way our calendar is currently structured is to be able to have exams before Christmas break,” said incoming Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden, who is currently leading Amory’s school district. “A change in the calendar will for the most part force our schools to give exams after Christmas.”
Mississippi law currently requires schools to hold 180 days of instruction. Generally, districts like to split those days with 90 of them in each semester. Schools with a traditional seven- or eight-period day could have an unbalanced schedule, covering more material in a longer second semester than in a shorter first semester. Those on block schedules, which a growing number of high schools are using, would be more constrained.
Under the block schedule, students take four classes during the first semester and then four completely different classes during the second. Since the classes reset midway through the year, they must have the same number of days in each semester.
“It depends on how the calendar falls,” said Jackie Ford, who becomes New Albany’s interim superintendent on July 1.
Ford said that schools can try to shorten Thanksgiving holidays, eliminate other fall holidays like Columbus Day and end the first semester closer to Christmas Day. Whether or not they are able to cover all 90 days before the holiday, however, will depend on how late the third Monday in August falls each year.
The law also will require a change for the Mississippi High School Activities Association, which began football games as early as Aug. 19 last year.
Associate Director of Athletics Rickey Neaves said the association is currently determining its new schedule, noting that he does not like to have games start before school does.
He said the association will likely role out a new schedule during the 2013-14 school year, after its biyearly reclassification next year.
He doesn’t anticipate it affecting the length of the regular season for any sport.
Parent Ken Rodgers of Tupelo likes the idea of giving students a longer vacation, noting when he went to school in south Mississippi during the 1970s, classes didn’t begin until around Labor Day.
“I just like the idea of giving kids a longer break,” he said.
Michelle Bell, who has a daughter in kindergarten in Tupelo and a son in seventh grade, agrees.
Even if summer vacation is the same number of days, she said, summer feels shorter when school starts at the beginning of August.
That said, many of the parents interviewed also didn’t like the idea of the first semester extending beyond Christmas.
“I don’t like having exams after Christmas because I feel there is so much distraction during the time off,” said Carol Ann Hughes, whose daughter is in seventh grade at Tupelo Middle School. “It may be harder for them to focus.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com