They're getting ready to reopen school at Maple Lane Elementary. But it's not a matter of grabbing a month's head start on the annual transition from vacation days to school days.

Maple Lane will be back in full swing on Aug. 4 -- the earliest ever for any school in New Castle County.

Principal Julianne Pecorella, who has been an educator for 25 years, said the new routine has not engendered anything like academic jet lag. "The internal clock is just running a little bit fast," she said.

Actually, she explained, what's happening at the school in Claymont is more 'normal' when stacked

up against present-day lifestyles than an agriculture-driven calendar.  Summer vacation isn't what is used to be.

"You don't see many kids out playing. They're either inside with t.v. or video games or, with a majority of families having two working parents, at daycare," she said.

On the other hand, there are sound academic reasons for condensing off-time, she said. Citing the experience of a teacher who taught the same group in first and second grades, Pecorella said several children in the class who were reading at grade level in June were under level in September.

Teachers have long complained that the first month or so of school has to be spent playing catch-up. If the new arrangement doesn't completely eliminate that, it is almost certain to reduce the amount of remedial time that is required. And that, she said, is certain to sit well with teachers.

There isn't much likelihood, on the other hand, that a month-early start will be a slow start. "In elementary school, you can't start slow. Our teachers have been coming in all summer and getting everything lined up. When the students arrive, they'll be all ready to go," she said.

Going from a traditional school-year calendar to what Pecorella and others like to refer to as a 'balanced calendar' hasn't been fraught with difficulty.

"Everybody has been enthusiastic and anxious to make this work," she said. "I haven't seen a mass exodus."

Kathleen McCorriston (above) prepares her second-grade classroom for the reopening of school which Maple Lane school secretary Carol Carter checks in supplies.

On the contrary, she added, it is as much 'situation normal' as if Labor Day was again the starting signal and not just the year's first holiday.

She credits that to the fact that the school community, including parents, has been fully involved in planning for the change. "This is something we've worked on together. It's not something that's being imposed on anybody," she said.

"We had 290 students in June and I expect to have about 290 when we open. We've lost a couple of families, but that's because of their individual circumstances," she said. The main problem has been families' unwillingness to juggle two school calendars where they have children in other schools.

An informal word-of-mouth process has resulted, she said, in several families who have not previously had children in school enrolling kindergarteners. "When they heard from others (parents of current students) what we were doing, they were willing to give it a try," she said.

No special arrangements were made to tie the changeover at Maple Lane to the state's public school choice program. Pecorella said she hasn't made it a practice to delve into the reasons any student has been 'choiced' and declined to speculate on what, if any, effect a 'balanced calendar' will have on that in future years.

She did note that she and the Maple Lane staff have been in close contact with Seaford Central Elementary, which instituted a 'balanced calendar' in Delaware and is the only other school in the state to use it this year. "Their arrangement is that everyone goes there through 'choice'. Right now I understand they have a waiting list [to enroll]. My prediction is that will happen here, but I don't know how soon," she said.

She will not, however, predict anything like universal acceptance of the arrangement. "I'll be the first to admit this is not something for every family," she said.

Staff turnover this year has been normal, she added. No one has left because of the change.

A good indication of its acceptance, she said, lies in the fact that the four teachers Maple Lane 'shares' with other Brandywine district schools -- music, art, library and physical education -- have agreed to work two-day weeks in August, five-day weeks in September and three-day weeks in October.

The October arrangement is the result of there being the first of three scheduled 'intersessions' then. Those, Pecorella said, are most significant advantage of a 'balanced calendar'. Two weeks in October and one each in January and May will be spent providing extra help for students needing it and a wide range of enrichment course for those who want them.

Regarding the former, Pecorella said past practice has largely been a matter of requiring students who fall behind to make it up in summer school. "Now we'll be able to catch it and help them before they get too far behind," she said.

Overall student performance is expected to improve.

The enrichment courses are voluntary and will be offered on a menu basis. Each will last a week and four will be offered during morning hours and four in the afternoon. Students and their parents can pick whatever combination suits them. That is roughly comparable to offering a college-type interim program to children in kindergarten through third grade. Regular and retired teachers and volunteers from the community will be the instructors.

"We have three conditions for 'intersession': no homework, no uniforms and no misbehavior," she said.

While acknowledging that adopting a 'balanced calendar' is a sharp break with tradition, Pecorella explained that it is not particularly radical. It is not, as some people might think, a matter of going to year-around schooling.

The calendar has the same number of days as a traditional school calendar. The winter and spring holiday seasons will be observed and there will be a six-week summer vacation when classes end in mid-June to resume in August of 2005.

Also, the change at Maple Lane is not being undertaken as a pilot program nor considered experimental.

Posted on July 29, 2004

2004. All rights reserved.

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