Surrounded by navy plaid uniformed students, Cardinal Roger Mahony expressed his support last week for increasing the school year by four weeks at many archdiocesan elementary schools beginning this fall.
At a press conference held at Nativity School in South Los Angeles Jan. 27, Cardinal Mahony announced that the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s elementary school system would be the first school system in California, private or public, to add 20 days to the academic year.
“There are few undertakings more important or more sacred in our society than the responsibility to provide our children with a good education,” said the cardinal, flanked by Coadjutor Archbishop José Gomez; Msgr. Tim Dyer, Nativity pastor; Notre Dame de Namur Sister Judy Flahavan, Nativity principal; Kevin Baxter, archdiocesan superintendent of elementary schools; and 17 school children.
“As our world becomes more complex,” he continued, “educational standards must adapt and grow in order to equip young people with the skills they will need to succeed in life, serving in the government, industry, business, non-profit and educational fields. One critical way to improve education is by providing students with more time in an academic setting.”
Many of the archdiocese’s 210 elementary schools serving 52,000 students will begin moving towards a 200-day academic calendar for the next school year of 2011-12, amounting to an 11 percent increase over the present calendar.
“The relationship between more substantive, effective time in an academic setting and increased student performance is clear, and the elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles are responding to this critical national issue in order that our students grow up to be successful leaders in the global workforce,” said the cardinal. “By adopting an 11-month academic calendar, students will spend more time in a quality school setting, which studies show leads to greater academic success.”
While acknowledging that test scores show an average eighth-grader in the archdiocese performs better than 65 percent of the rest of the country in reading, language and math, Superintendent Baxter said that there is room for growth.
“We can never settle for the status quo. The school year extension accentuates our reputation for excellence and further demonstrates to parents who are contemplating a Catholic school the emphasis on the quality of education at our schools,” said Baxter, who added that the U.S.’s 180-day school year “is at the bottom internationally with regard to the length of the school year.”
“The reality that all parents must deal with is that the world is changing and our students will engage in technologies not yet invented to address issues that come from around the globe,” he asserted. “Education in the United States for the most part is the same today as it was 50 and 100 years ago. We must adapt and develop for the demands of the 21st century.”
As the father of five children under the age of 12, Baxter said he appreciated family time and the need to have a break from the rigors of the school year. “The ideal is that the plan to increase the length of the year will actually mitigate some of the intensity that students experience in some of our schools due to the amount of material that needs to get taught,” said Baxter, who noted that the summer break will still be nearly two months in length under the extended school year.
He added that schools will have the freedom to set their own calendars regarding start and end dates, to best accommodate their unique communities. A sample calendar given to principals has a start date of Aug. 16 and an end date of June 22, but this will vary at school sites located throughout the archdiocese’s 8,762 square miles spread across three counties: Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara.
The 11 percent increase in instructional time will result in an approximate 10 percent increase in salaries for staff. Tuition increases will vary. Schools with under enrollment that have a significant increase in new students may not need to increase tuition that much. Other schools may need to increase tuition up to 10 percent in order to support salary increases, Baxter indicated.
“As always, we will continue to work with low income families to address possible financial challenges, as we have done since the founding of Catholic schools,” said Baxter. Locally, Together in Mission and the Catholic Education Foundation are two archdiocesan programs providing financial aid to poorer schools and tuition assistance to low-income families.
Esther Garcia, Nativity third grade teacher, told The Tidings at the press conference that she has seen positive results since the school went to an extended school year eight years ago. Nativity is among 15 archdiocesan schools currently operating on an extended calendar year.
“The extended school year is a great idea,” said Garcia. “All our teachers are behind it, because it gives the students additional time to meet state standards. The biggest benefit is that they don’t have a lot of time to lose the knowledge that they’ve gained in the academic year.”
Sylvia Armas-Abad, a field consultant for the University of Notre Dame’s “Catholic School Advantage” campaign who grew up attending Catholic schools in East L.A., said she supports extending the school year.
“We need to prepare these children for the technology and the global changes that are taking place,” she told The Tidings. “When you look at other cultures, [you see] how rigorous the curriculum is and how much time they spend in formal instruction. They can travel throughout the world and be successful and build businesses and be entrepreneurs. We want to certainly make sure that our children are the future entrepreneurs of our country and our world.”
“I think a year-round schedule is good for our students here,” said Lizeth Ulloa, Nativity seventh-grader. “Our test scores are really high compared to other schools. With them, we could get into a good high school and also a good university.”
Nativity third-grader Kevin Parada summed up his school career so far this way: “I like this school because you keep your faith, you learn a lot and you get to play with your friends.”