PTSA queries parents, teachers on school break schedule

Parents of Vashon Island School District students and district staff can let the district know what they think of the sometimes controversial school vacation schedule.

The PTSA distributed a survey about five vacation breaks — Labor Day, winter break, mid-winter break, spring break and half days — to both parents and staff last week.

Some parents complained a few years ago when the district went to a pre-Labor Day start to the school year because the September holiday seemed to them a traditional part of summer vacation. The survey offers the choice of a pre- or post-Labor Day start.

For winter break, now two weeks long in December, the choice is between the status quo and a shorter break.

The same principle applies to mid-winter and spring breaks, each now a week long — but for mid-winter the shorter choices are a four-day weekend or President’s Day only. For spring break, the shorter choices are a four-day weekend or no break at all.

Some teachers like the mid-winter break because it breaks up what they consider a long slog between New Year’s and spring, a period long enough to make both teachers and students cranky.

Some parents, on the other hand, dislike the entire sequence of breaks from winter to spring: they tend to be parents in families with two jobs who sometimes struggle with child-care costs and vailability.

“It’s great if you can afford to go on a ski vacation. And it’s great down time for the kids,” said Carolyn Amick, a mother of two. “But I have to say if you’re working, it’s tough.”

“I like the week in February. We go skiing over winter break,” said Adam Atwell, another parent.

But he added that snow days, like last year’s, can make the year too long. “The year should end around June 13th,” he said.

The half day is the final item on the survey. It’s teacher time-off about five times a year for professional development and curriculum planning.

Those days are not always the same day of the week, which can make parent planning complicated.

School board president Bob Hennessey said last Friday that he has had lots of parents asking questions about the calendar.

“Most of the complaints were about the mid-winter break,” he said. “But teachers think it is a good idea,” he added.

Hennessey also reported that he and fellow board member Laura Wishik have been meeting with teachers and staff about the calendar. “At the high school about two weeks ago,” Hennessey said, “those present were in favor of retaining the mid-winter break because it gave them an important time to catch their breaths and catch up on work.”

The calendar, Hennessey pointed out, is created in negotiation between the board and the Vashon Education Association (VEA), the teachers’ union. The VEA contract, like all of the school district’s labor contracts, is up for renewal this year, but the negotiations would not affect the 2008-09 calendar.

Lee Ockinga, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and a school parent, represents the PTSA to the school board and instigated the survey.

She said that there were previous surveys in 2002 and 2005 and that the new one had been to some extent ignited by last year’s unusual number of snow days. That brought on an extended school year that ran until near the end of June, and many parents became interested in not just the extension but also the whole calendar.

Ockinga consulted with the board about sending out the survey. Hennessey, he said, told her that the board could not afford to pay for the survey but that it was happy for the PTSA to take it on.

Ockinga received donations from various Island businesses to cover the costs of the paper and the printing, she said; PTSA had to pay only the postage costs to cover the 1,064 copies mailed to parents of students. The 165 staff surveys were placed in school mailboxes.

The deadline for submitting the completed surveys is Friday, March 7. Ockinga said that she expects the results to be collated in time for her to make a report to the school board at its second meeting of the month at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 22, in the Vashon High School library.