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In Dallas, Bold Changes to the School Calendar to Address Covid Slide

When Dallas Independent School District allocated the latest round of its federal Covid-relief aid, it placed a $73 million bet on one strategy to improve student achievement: extending the school year. The Texas district launched extended-year schedules—starting school in early August and ending in late June—at 46 elementary and middle schools in fall 2021 and has started to see some promising early results. FutureEd Associate Director Phyllis Jordan spoke about the program with Derek Little, Dallas’s deputy chief academic officer.

Why did Dallas decide to invest in the extended-year approach? Is there research you found that convinced you this was a good way to go?

There's obviously strong research to show more time in high-quality learning environments matters. There's also compelling research to look at how to reduce summer slide, and a longer school year is one strategy to do that. And then we were also anchoring this in the research on teacher efficacy and planning, how to create more space for them to do the professional work that they need to do in their job. We put those together to guide our decision to extend the school year. We’ve done that at 46 of our 230 campuses. Over 20,000 students are impacted.

Do the campuses opt in or do you recommend this approach for certain types of schools?

We started by saying that we wanted entire feeder patterns, elementary all the way up through high school, to adopt the same calendar. And we were doing that with the assumption that it would help families. But we realized that it would be very difficult, and in the first year impossible, to change our high schools because of our interconnectedness with early college and dual-credit programs. We just couldn't expect every system to move at the same time.

So we narrowed it to elementary and middle. We then decided this should be open to any school that wants to participate, but we forced certain schools to go through the engagement process. If you were a high-needs school—based on equity, demographics, a combination of factors—we said, "You've got to go talk to your people and see if they want to do this."

Your people being parents, teachers, or both?

We required principals to first opt in. If the principal didn't want to do it, we knew it wasn't going to work. If the principal was on board, then they needed to talk to their staff. And that was every staff member at the school: teachers, counselors, custodians, cafeteria workers, and support staff.

We provided a protocol, materials to use in a staff meeting, and a survey to give them. Principals had to get at least 80 percent of their staff to respond to this survey. They didn't all have to like it, but at least 80 percent had to give us an opinion. And then there were thresholds for what that opinion had to look like. If you met the staff requirement, you then went out to parents in the community. And we made them get 80 percent of their parents to respond as well. People thought we were crazy, and it was hard, but we ended up getting something like 90 schools with enough feedback to make the decision. And 46 ended up having the support they needed to move forward.

You started the program last fall. Has it gone as you expected? 

I have two different answers based on the different calendars we have. Of the 46 schools, five are doing what we call school-day redesign, which is basically a longer school year. So they go 11 months from August 1st to the end of June. The other 41 are doing what’s known as an intersession model. They start in August, too, and go to school for a month or so, then they’ve got a week where some students and teachers are on campus doing extra work, others are on vacation. And we do that five times throughout the year, ending in late June, leaving about a month of summer vacation for everyone.

[Read More: School Districts' Post-Covid Strategies for Summer Learning]

The intersession model is working very well. People are happy with it. We're starting to see that show up in student-level data. And when I say people are happy, I mean the principals, the teachers, kids. We've done surveys of all of those groups. They're saying, "This is good. We like it." On the school-day redesign side, it doesn't have these defined moments in the year like intersession. And what we're finding is it just feels like more of the same at these schools. Burnout and anxiety are higher from the staff's perspective.

Do you invite students to attend intersessions, or can anyone show up?

There are three groups of students that we think about. Group A are students who meet criteria that the district sets, and schools have to invite them. They’ve shown up as needing support, or they're a student with special needs or an emergent bilingual student. Group B are those the campus gets to choose. Maybe they're focused on attendance or certain grade levels or engagement issues. And then Group C are those whose families opt in even if their kid isn't invited.

In the intersession model, you essentially have five different vacation weeks, and some students keep attending during those vacations?

Right, we extended the year to make room for the five intersessions—a week in September, November, January, February and June—beyond the district’s regular holidays. Our typical students are off those weeks. They can be on vacation, they can be doing whatever they want. It's not required school time. But we're inviting up to half of the school to come back and engage in additional learning. The teachers are also off, so we have to recruit them for the intersession weeks. They're opting in just like the students are.

That’s more staff days. Is that the chief cost of this model?

Yes, the biggest cost drivers here are personnel. We did not want to change teacher staff contracts. So they still have the same contract as if they were working a regular calendar. They're getting their full rate of pay. If you're a teacher and you get $350 a day, you get that on intersession days as well. And that's true at all staff types.

Based on the number of students that they're inviting and hope to attend, schools get a certain number of teacher and staff allocations. And that's what the district will pay for with our federal Covid aid. If they want to staff above that, they've got to find money in their own campus budget to be able to do that. But no one has found the need or the interest to go above our allocations this year, because we're quite generous. We've actually staffed it at a 15 to 1 ratio, because we want these to be smaller groups. Normally, we would staff at a 22 to 1 ratio.

Do these teachers get planning time for these sessions?

The first day of each intersession week is a full day of planning for the teachers working the intersession. The tradeoff there is you get extra time for planning if you do the extra intersession week. If you don’t choose to work the intersession, then teachers get their traditional planning time on regular school days.

Are these intersession weeks like regular school or do they have a different feel?

I want them to feel like summer camp that's doing a lot of learning.

What have the results been so far?

We presented results to our board from the first half of this school year. In reading, we saw a benefit; both of the new calendar models produced more student growth than our base calendar. In math, they hadn't quite gotten there yet. But we didn’t start our math intersessions until the second semester. We think that will show up in end-of-year data. And we've always anticipated that we will see the biggest academic impact in the second year of implementation.

How long is Dallas committed to this project, is it a pilot?

It feels too big to be a pilot. We have promised our board and the community that we're doing this for two years. None of the 46 schools are going to get to leave, none are going to join.  We have a very strong monitoring plan in place to understand the impact. And it will allow board to decide next February, three semesters into the project, if this is something that we want to continue, if we want to scale it, or if we want to scrap it.

Are you optimistic?

As I sit here today, I am very optimistic. I think there's enough school staff and leaders who are interested in it, and the early indicators are looking pretty good. But what will be interesting is normally on Memorial Day, our school year ends. All these people in the extended-year schools are going to keep going for three more weeks. It will be fascinating to just see how much momentum and energy they still have when they come back in early August. The bottom line here is we haven't learned enough yet to make a long-term decision, but where we are right now is promising.