Memorial Day, like many other national holidays, has moved around the calendar over the years. Originally celebrated in honor of soldiers who fell during the Civil War, the holiday has generally fallen in May, and was for some time celebrated on May 30 before finally settling into its final Monday of the month rotation. Labor Day, Thanksgiving and a couple of presidential birthdays are celebrated the same way, falling on a particular day of the week which shifts with the calendar, rather than staying on a specific date.
With the holiday being something of a moving target, several area school districts recently realized that they had scheduled classes on this year’s holiday. Some of the blame lies with the state legislature, they said, because Austin has mandated when school can begin as well as the number of days classes must meet. The districts have calendar committees that develop a proposed school calendar each year, which then are reviewed and approved by the superintendent and school boards of trustees. Based on the superintendents of Bangs, Brownwood and Early’s comments, this is where the problem began. And it wasn’t caught until it was too late to correct.
Planning a school calendar is sure to have its challenges. There are holidays to work around, “traditional” vacation times when families normally travel, mandated staff work and training days, and more. As anyone who has tried to organize and schedule a meeting will tell you — it’s impossible to please everyone. And that’s the biggest challenge the district scheduler-makers face — deciding which constituency they want to displease the least.
State law dictates that classes cannot begin prior to the fourth Monday in August, and that each school year will consist of 180 days of instruction. There was a growing public outcry from parents as the state’s districts began a trend of starting classes earlier and earlier in August, which is one of the factors in the legislature’s action to push back the start date. That compressed the window of available class days led to this year’s scheduling overlap.
Each of the superintendents, when contacted by the Bulletin, said that they meant no disrespect to fallen members of the military — which Memorial Day honors — or their families. They said that the mandated changes only took effect in this school year, and that in the past Memorial Day had not been an issue. However it is just one of many challenges that district calendar makers are going to have to address going forward.
According to some reports, many parents simply took matters into their own hands and kept their kids home for the holiday. Several classes reported absenteeism as high as 50 percent. Although the last week of school is typically not one of intense study, it is the time for finals in the higher grade levels — some of which will determine who graduates — and fun class time at the lower levels. Pulling students out of school for a holiday reinforces the message that school and education aren’t important, a message our schools have to fight constantly.
Given the many obstacles in place to creating a “perfect” calendar, the challenge will only continue to grow. As our nation continues to change, and new cultures grow in number, so will the number of holidays schools schedule around. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was not always recognized as a national holiday, as it is today. Can other holidays be far behind? Battling the public’s determination to do things its own way, and celebrate as it sees fit, is another challenge. And both those may pale in comparison to the challenges of keeping abreast of Austin’s mandates.
The districts must keep their primary mission in mind as they establish schedules — which is to educate. Extra days built in for travel, religious and even national holidays must each be examined — as should the traditional breaks for Christmas and spring. Additionally, the schools must be sensitive to national holiday trends and honor those as best they can. Even with that, those schedules will never make everyone happy, but so long as schools keep their primary mission in mind, and get the others right most of the time, they can figure out a way to make the calendar work.
Bill Crist is associate publisher and general manager of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.