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F.C. School Board Votes 4-2 to Move 2020 Start Date Before Labor Day

Members of the Falls Church City School Board took a record vote at its meeting Tuesday to move the opening of the school year to before Labor Day, Aug. 24 to be exact, starting next summer. Left to right, Phil Reitinger, Shannon Litton, Justin Castillo, Greg Anderson, Erin Gill and Superintendent Peter Noonan. Not pictured, Shawna Russell. (Photo:News-Press)

The Falls Church City Public Schools will begin classes two weeks prior to Labor Day next fall, on Aug. 24, based on a 4-2 vote by the School Board Tuesday night. The new calendar will conclude the school year next spring with graduation on June 2 and the last day of school on June 10.

The new calendar allows for over 70 additional hours of instruction prior to the onset of general student testing, most of which begins in late May, and as such, according to the School Board chair Erin Gill, serves to “redress opportunity gaps” for all students.

The changes, the first allowed by the state legislature since it permitted classes to begin before Labor Day last spring, brings the Falls Church system into alignment with the much larger, adjacent Fairfax County school system that had received a special waiver from the state two years ago to begin earlier.

They come after months of study by an ad hoc committee of teachers, staff, parents, students and administrators and a widespread public survey. The policy shift, advocated by Superintendent Peter Noonan, also led to an outpouring of opposition from some parents. They argued that, among other things, there is no evidence showing SOL tests would improve, the school system would risk losing teachers and summer vacation plans would be disrupted.

But Noonan told the News-Press in an interview yesterday that “there is a lot of data showing that student test scores improve with additional instruction time prior to testing,” and the new schedule will add 70 hours of additional instruction prior to the late May time frame when the bulk of testing (for the Standards of Learning, International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs) takes place.

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Noonan, in a letter to the FCCPS teachers and staff issued Wednesday morning, said that the FCCPS has advocated for the change for more than two decades before the legislature finally acted last spring, and added that, “In the end, the calendar adopted provides more days of instruction prior to exams, upholds our commitments to equity by providing earlier access to our curriculum and instruction, aligns with regional jurisdictions and provides for a two-week winter break, a three-day Thanksgiving break and an earlier end to the school year.”

While there was some criticism based on the informal poll, Noonan told the News-Press “it was a tool of the ad hoc committee to gather information, not to be tallied for the purpose of determining the outcome.”

He said he was pleased with the outcome because, he said, “It is my job to do everything in my power to advantage all our students.” He wrote to the school staff yesterday that, “In the end, the adopted calendar reflects the core values I shared with you and the community when I arrived at FCCPS: collaboration, ethical leadership and equity and excellence for all.”

He noted that when Alexandria schools voted recently to continue a post-Labor Day calendar, it was only for one year, with the promise that it would be adjusted to a pre-Labor Day start beginning the following year. As for Arlington, the decision on the next school year calendar won’t be made until next February.

As it was, the FCCPS was one of only three school systems in the Northern Virginia region to have a post-Labor Day start when Tuesday’s vote was taken. “We were an outlier,” Noonan said.

Voting for the change Tuesday were Gill, vice chair Greg Anderson and board members Shawna Russell and Justin Castillo. Voting against were Phil Reitinger and Shannon Litton. Gill said that Lawrence Webb, absent at the meeting, had expressed his support for the change.

“Student outcomes are the key,” Gill said. She dismissed the unscientific survey as “neither here nor there.”

Anderson said he’d received over 100 emails and noted that there were 1,200 responses to the survey. He said the earlier start “best serves our core mission,” with additional instructional days helping best the “more vulnerable students.”

Russell, who also dismissed the “imperfect” survey, saying she did not take a lot of stock in its unscientific results, said that “the maximum educational outcome for all students” caused her to support the change. “It is focused on the kids and closing achievement gaps, adding nine classroom days before Memorial Day.”

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She said her decision was not as a “rubber stamp” for the superintendent’s recommendation because “we’ve been working on this since September.”
Reitinger said he favored a third option, to begin on Aug. 31 instead of Aug. 24, because next fall Labor Day comes on the latest day possible, Sept. 7.

Litton argued the change would be “too much for families,” saying “the community is split and we need a compromise.” This change involves “too much too quickly,” she said.

The only citizen to speak during the petition period of the meeting, Cheryl Bois, argued “there is no compelling reason why the calendar should be changed” and called for a delay in the vote.

Two new School Board members-elect, Laura Downs and Susan Dimock, were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, as observers, but did not participate as their duties don’t formally begin until Jan. 1, when Gill and Castillo will depart the board. The board took a mid-meeting break to have come cake in honor of the service of Gill and Castillo.

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