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Rummel favors longer school calendar

DICKINSON - We've known for some time that we now compete and exist in a global economy. But do we truly understand what that means or requires?

Dickinson School Board President Dean Rummel points to some daunting statistics regarding how other countries compare to the United States regarding the number of contact days we have with students.

China requires 251 days, Korea 225, Japan 223, Israel 215, Italy 210, Switzerland 207, Russia 195, England 199 and Canada 188. The international average is 193 days, the U.S. averages 180 and the Dickinson Public Schools currently sit at 178 contact days.

Rummel said China tracks the 300 million students it has in its education system.

"Of the 300 million, the top 10 percent are tracked. So they track 30 million of those and they track them for various advanced degrees," he said. "Forty-eight percent of those 30 million are engineering (students). So they are going to graduate nearly 15 million engineers a year at a time."

Compare that to the U.S., where physical education majors tend to lead the list of college degrees earned annually.

"Not that I have anything against physical education majors, we need those too," Rummel said. "But we're graduating more of them than engineers in the United States. And our competitive advantage is we have to continue to invent, we have to continue to be creative. We got our students who have to be able to compete on an international market."

The school calendar most of the United States uses was developed in the early 1900s, Rummel said.

"It was done on the basis that we needed our children to employ them in the summer to plant and harvest, they needed them on the farm," he said. "We had large families because of that."

As years have gone by, schools have taken on more responsibilities.

"When we first started out we didn't provide meals and busing services. Today we deal with No Child Left Behind and special ed and all of the other things that schools are now required to do," Rummel said. "And we still have the same calendar we had in the early 1900s. We try to cram all of this, squeeze it all into the same amount of time."

He is concerned about the retention students have after the traditional summer break. They come back in late August or early September and spend the first several weeks reviewing to reconnect with where they left off the previous May.

Rummel also questions the productivity of the final weeks of school in May, given the arrival of warmer weather and the desire to be outdoors instead of the classroom.

"We have not changed off our agrarian calendar because we are all very comfortable with that. We look forward to having summers off, we did it when we went to school and we want our children to have it," he said. "But in reality, I think we put our head in the sand."

Rummel also believes the fact the working world doesn't operate on anything like the agrarian school calendar needs to be addressed. Children go to school for over a decade getting lots of days off, including every holiday. But we all know that isn't the way the working world works, he said.

"We also have two working spouses, a lot of families like that, or single parents, who have to deal with day care during that summer session. We probably have some students who are on their own a lot during that time period," he said. "You couple that all together and say, "Is it time for us to look at our calendar since most of us do not use children anymore to farm?'"

Based on reading he's done and conversations he's had, Rummel would start a new approach by using a school calendar that has three sets of 60 days with breaks in between for a balanced calendar.

"In other words, you still have a break during the holiday season, you still have a break at Thanksgiving. It actually divides the year up kind of nicely," he said.

Rummel said you don't have any more school days to deal with, but you could schedule extra-curricular activities for specific dates during the breaks allowing for more student classroom time, which "is what we need to get to," he said.

He believes using a balanced calendar would initially have to be a choice for parents. You could begin with two elementary schools on the alternative calendar and the rest are on the agrarian calendar, he said.

"Now the teachers and staff are probably going to be paid different because they are year-around employees," Rummel said of the balanced calendar schools. "We've been talking about teacher's salaries and not being where they need to be in the state of North Dakota. This is one way to maybe correct that."

The teacher calendar also then becomes similar to everybody else's work calendar and there no longer is the perception that professional teachers have the summers off and work nine months out of the year, he said.

"Which is not really true - they go to school, they further their education, they take seminars, additional training," Rummel said.

He thinks once some parents get their children on a balanced calendar, they would see if helps address day care problems and allows families to take winter vacations besides summer vacations.

"I can tell you this is going to give you these blocks in which you can do it," he said.

But the bottom line is a balanced calendar better addresses student needs.

"We don't have that retention problem. You don't have to do the review," Rummel said. "I think those students will advance and do better on ACT testing, college entrance exams and as they continue on in their life."

He said about 4 percent of the school districts in the United States are on a year-around calendar. The National Association for Year-Round Education Web site states North Dakota had one such school district during the 2006-2007 school year.

Convincing people in a state with a strong agrarian background to make this type is switch isn't easy, Rummel added. He would expect opposition from people who refer to tests that show students learn various things and skills during the traditional summer break.

"We're not saying you don't do that on this other calendar. You're doing it at different times of the year," he said.

After spending nine years on the school board, Rummel believes a change is needed.

"I have a lot of agreement saying 'Yes, yes, but how are we going to do that? How are we going to persuade our constituents to make this change,'" he said. "We have to continue to talk about it. We probably need to put this on our planning sessions that we would hold to start moving in this direction because I think it will take several years for us to make some changes here."

He thinks opposition may come mostly from teachers because teaching has been done this way for so long and a benefit of the profession is to get the summer off.

"For some, that is pretty important; that may be what attracted them in the first place," Rummel said. "Now if we change the rules on them, that's not quite fair either."

At the national level, there is talk about year-around school, especially in metropolitan schools that are struggling to meet federal education requirements, he said. The extra time spent with students in a year-around school calendar is seen by more urban school districts as the possible solution to helping meet federal requirements.

"They start making the change broader on a national basis, we can't sit here in Dickinson, North Dakota, and not make changes," Rummel said. "We have to start talking now as to how we're going to change this."