Aspen School District grapples with competing interests in calendar proposal
Ahead of school board vote Tuesday, parents and administrators consider pros and cons
Aspen School District administrators have spent the last two months collecting community feedback on a proposed school calendar that eliminates Wednesday early-release days and maintains a split schedule in which elementary school students start earlier than middle and high school students.
Middle and high school students would start at 8:45 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m. according to the latest version of the proposed calendar; elementary school students would start at 8 a.m. and end at 3 p.m.
More than 650 survey and feedback form responses provided a mixed bag of opinion with no overarching theme, according to District Superintendent David Baugh.
“Not a lot of consensus, let me put it that way,” he said.
The calendar is up for a vote at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. The decision will impact — and be impacted by — a wide range of factors from academics to extracurriculars to transportation.
“Every time you move one thing in the school, it affects like 15 other things,“ Baugh said. “Everything’s interconnected.”
The proposed changes promise to add more instructional hours for students to address a “COVID slip” caused by pandemic-related learning interruptions, and there are more full professional development opportunities for teachers baked into the calendar. Research supports a later start time for older students.
Plus, the split schedule helps meet transportation needs amid a bus driver shortage.
The district needs to hire four more regular drivers and five more substitute drivers to make a universal bell schedule feasible, said Transportation Director Reghan Mahaffey. Driver wages start at $21.50 an hour for small vehicles and $22.50 an hour for drivers with a commercial driver’s license, plus health insurance and a $400 wellness benefit that can be used toward recreation-related expenses like ski passes. The part-time nature of the job and high cost of living, however, in the valley have been a challenge in recruitment.
The split schedule could actually help drivers earn more wages because they would drive for more hours a day, Mahaffey said. On the flip side, drivers who also hold other jobs in the district may not be able to cover all four trips each day, she noted.
There are also impacts to extracurriculars and after-school sports: Later start and end times for the regular school day also mean later start and end times for the activities that happen after it.
Accounting for transition time after class, middle school and high school athletics practices wouldn’t be able to start until after 4 p.m., which could pose particular challenges for winter sports. Some lifts at Aspen Highlands run until 4:30 p.m. for students thanks to support from Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC), but Highlands isn’t equipped for night skiing once the sun goes down.
Some of AVSC’s offerings also line up with the early-release days, with programming on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
The elimination of early-release Wednesdays would help out working parents who would otherwise have to arrange extra child care for those after-school hours. The split schedule, however, adds other challenges: Parents with kids in different grades may have to coordinate two separate pickups and drop-offs each day, and parents who are also teachers may have schedules that don’t align with their kids.
Another factor to consider: While the new calendar has more structured professional development days, teachers would lose the weekly block of time on early-release Wednesdays that they could use for planning and collaboration.
The district is also planning a new HyFlex program that will implement some of the asynchronous learning tools that evolved from the pandemic to give more flexibility to students who participate in competitive sports, performing arts and internships during the day. Administrators plan to formalize that program over the next few weeks, according to Baugh. An update on the program is on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.
That could make a difference in the eyes of parents like Julianne Stokes and Heather Hutto, who both expressed concerns about the impact of the schedule changes on their student-athlete kids in interviews earlier this month.
Hutto’s two skier sons enrolled in a different online school for the pandemic school year; she has submitted an intent to re-enroll them in district this fall, but expressed trepidation about returning if the proposed calendar is approved without clear programs in place to maintain flexibility.
Hutto and Stokes both said they would like to see more transparency from the district on the calendar changes and HyFlex program.
“Nothing’s clear,” Hutto said. “I think the community as a whole is just really confused.”
Survey rollout to gather feedback has had some hiccups this year; not everyone who was on the list to receive links actually received them the first time around. Earlier iterations of the calendar proposed this spring didn’t all include both the split schedule and elimination of early-release Wednesdays.
“I feel like a lot of people just didn’t understand the drastic change,” Stokes said.
The calendar isn’t set in stone for future academic years, Baugh noted — and the elimination of early-release days, while different from the status quo, would be a return to the way the district operated more than a decade ago.
“This is not a radical concept,” Baugh said. “It’s just not how we’ve done things for the last 15 years.”
But for families whose school year has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, Stokes suggested getting back to the “new normal” should mean more normal than new.
“There has been so much change in the past year and a half. Why make more change and disruption and stress people out — teachers, students, parents, you know?” She said. “Its a huge stress. Can we just roll in to getting back to normal?”
A group of 19 local, high school students have been busy sharing a little bit more than the usual “What did you do this summer?” stories to start the new school year.
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