Exams in January? Maybe

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By Jenna McKenna

Levy County students might take their first semester final exams in late January next year, but Levy County School Board (SBLC) is fighting tooth and nail to keep that from happening.

A committee to prepare the school year calendar for next year agreed, with more than 70 percent of members voting their approval, that next year's school calendar should extend the first semester of school past the Christmas break, thereby holding first semester final exams in mid-January.

In spite of the strength of the committee vote, the board voted 4-1 to send the matter back to the committee, with a request that the committee return its decision to the board with a detailed explanation of the benefits of an interrupted first semester, and justification for changing from the current system of ending the first semester before Christmas break.

The reason the school year calendar is so controversial is that, due to a state statute that went into effect this year, school boards may no longer start their school years any earlier than two weeks before Labor Day. Levy County and other agricultural counties have historically begun their school years as early as the first week of August, which allows them to get the minimum of 81 days of school (required for classroom credit) in before the semester break at Christmas.

Candy Dean, Director of Personnel for SBLC, presented the two calendars on behalf of the committee, explaining that neither calendar was particularly satisfactory. Calendar A, which ends the first semester before Christmas, fulfills the required 81 days by sacrificing one of the fall free days that all Levy County schools except Cedar Key use for University of Florida Homecoming. Cedar Key uses its free day as a preparation day for the fall Seafood Festival.

Beth Davis, board member for Cedar Key, pointed out that Seafood Festival is a critical event for Cedar Key's economy, and one in which virtually all citizens participate. Students are members of clubs that provide food for the festival, and teachers are either sponsors of those clubs or are farmers or vendors in the local seafood industry.

“That's a really busy weekend for them, and to sacrifice that day would be a real hardship,” she said.

Other board members argued strenuously that to move first semester exams to January would create a hardship for teachers and students, requiring teachers to waste classroom time on first semester review or risk having students fail exams on material they had already learned. They agreed that students could not be expected to study over the break, and likely would not retain first semester lessons without review.

Representatives from Williston High School Student Government Association also argued in favor of Calendar A, saying they felt it was an unreasonable expectation to not put the semester break in the most reasonable place – the Christmas holiday.

Calendar B's plan to end the first semester in January comes with the benefit of having at least 85 days available for planned instruction in each semester, which gives schools some leeway for emergencies like tropical storms. Schools lost several days in the last several years due to hurricanes.

Dean said committee members had taken into consideration the time needed for review and exam preparation when school returns in January, but said it should not be more than four or five days. Teachers' union representative Cindy Roach said among teachers she had polled, some were strongly in favor of the plan and others acknowledged it as a reality.

“They're prepared to make the adjustment and rethink how they're teaching,” she said.

“That's their job as educators.”

On the vote, new board member Cameron Asbell was the lone objector, saying, “I think it's futile. The committee has already voted, and if we send it back to them, they'll vote the same way. I think we could delay our action on the calendar and use our time to go talk to teachers and find out how they feel about it. I've heard the objections from the students, but I haven't yet had a chance to hear from teachers.”

Board chair Frank Etheridge assured Asbell that while the committee reconsiders, the board will also do its homework. The school calendar will be revisited in the next meeting on April 7.