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‘Once you make a commitment, you just go for it’

by Andy Bourelle

The current controversy in Carson City over changing its elementary and middle schools to year-round, multi-track calendars has some familiarity to Douglas County school officials.

They went through it less than 10 years ago.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a district any place that has been able to change to a year-round schedule without some sort of fanfare,” said Greg Betts, who was Douglas County’s superintendent at the time. “It’s understandable. But, the people get used to it.”

Klaire Pirtle, principal of the year-round Minden Elementary School, said it is just a matter of residents and teachers changing their mindset.

“If it’s going to happen, you need to think very positively about it,” Pirtle said. “If you think it’s going to be OK, it will be OK. It’s kind of how you approach it.”

The Carson City school board agreed Tuesday not to place a $31 million bond for new schools before voters; instead, the district will move toward using year-round, multi-track calendars. A $4.8 million bond failed in November 1996.

Douglas County had similar problems passing bonds in the late 1980s, and, as a result, when Gene L. Scarselli Elementary School was built it was single-track for the 1988-89 school year, then multi-track for 1989-90. Jacks Valley, C.C. Meneley and Gardnerville elementary schools all were changed to multi-track respectively over the next three years.

Now, with the construction of Minden and Pinon Hills elementary schools within the last few years, Jacks Valley has returned to single-track. All of the district’s elementary schools are year-round, except for Zephyr Cove Elementary School, which remains traditional.

Assistant Superintendent of Education Services John Soderman – who was principal at C.C. Meneley Elementary School for nine years, five of which were multi-track – said the district mailed surveys to parents at the time the board was faced with the problem of overcrowding schools.

Out of those responding, 3 percent thought double sessions were the answer, 3 percent wanted larger classrooms, 16 percent supported portable, modular classrooms and 64 percent thought a year-round, multi-track calendar was the solution.

n Mixed support. Soderman said general national statistics show, once residents understand how a multi-track calendar works, about 60 percent of people support it and 40 percent are against it. After the multi-track calendar is used and people become used to it, even used to its inconveniences, generally 80 percent are in favor of it.

While principal at C.C. Meneley, Soderman conducted his own survey and found similar results. After three years of being on multi-track, 76 percent of parents of C.C. Meneley students agreed multi-track, year-round education was beneficial. Teachers supported it less: 46 percent agreed it was beneficial and 42 percent disagreed.

“For teachers, it was about a 50-50 split,” Soderman said. “That’s understandable, because they are the ones doing all the moving and changing classrooms.”

Statistically, Soderman said, students perform academically either the same or better on a year-round rather than traditional schedule. Disadvantaged students in particular, such as impoverished or special education students, benefit from a year-round calendar.

Pirtle said she is a strong supporter of a year-round calendar.

“It makes sense to have a year-round calendar,” she said. “It uses schools more efficiently. It’s good for kids, and it’s good for staff.”

With Valley elementary schools single-track, the school district’s student population has a lot of room to grow. Minden Elementary School has about 350 students, but it could handle 900 on a multi-track calendar.

“Multi-track is making the absolute best use of space,” Soderman said. “When you have three schools at capacity on a multi-track system, you’ve saved the taxpayers the cost of one school.”

Soderman said there are inconveniences that go with the multi-track calendar.

“I don’t paint it as rosy. There are difficulties, certainly for administrators,” he said. “Logistically, it’s difficult, but if the community wants it, it can be done.”

Families can face problems, too, the largest being that families with children in both traditional and year-round calendars may have difficulty finding a suitable vacation time fore everyone. However, Soderman said, many families become adjusted to it and enjoy it more.

Having at least one year to make the transition is important, Soderman said.

n Stick with it. Also, he said it is important to make the decision to change and stick with it.

“You can’t be in limbo. You need direction from the board, so you can focus on getting it done, not whether you have to do it,” Soderman said. “At some point you have to make the decision on how to handle growth. I’m sure it was a difficult decision for the Carson City board, but now they have to press on.”

Alicia Smalley, who was on the Douglas County school board when its district made the transition to a year-round calendar, felt the same way.

“Once you make a commitment to go for it, you just keep going,” Smalley said. “People get used to it.”

Betts agreed.

“In my opinion, it’s a reasonable thing to do. It saves taxpayer money,” he said. “People do get used to it.”

Pirtle said it is just a matter of parents, staff and administrators changing their lifestyles.

Soderman agreed, saying that traditional school calendars come because, in the past, children were needed to work on their parents’ farms. Now, in the information age, families usually don’t face the same situations.

“I always look at it this way: If for some reason you were on a year-round calendar for the last 100 years, people would have the same problems adjusting,” Soderman said. “If you flipped it around, it would probably be just as hard to switch to traditional.”

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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