New Orleans

Why there’s no such thing as the first day of school in New Orleans

Families struggle with 19 different starting dates in decentralized system

NEW ORLEANS — Valerie McGinley’s 15-year-old son started 10th grade on Monday, but his sister and three step-siblings could sleep in, riding out the varying lengths of their summer vacations.

The first day of classes in New Orleans is anything but traditional for the city’s 46,000 public school students, with 19 different start dates ranging from July 20 to Aug. 26. It’s actually over 115 different starts when including those that stagger grades by time and date.

And it’s not just the first day of school that’s disjointed.

The decentralized system’s 43 governing boards, which operate a combined 82 schools, each create calendars of breaks, teacher-training days and other time off during the year.

Keeping all those calendars straight?

“It’s insane,” McGinley said. “We have kids with three [calendars], sometimes four …” she said.

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McGinley’s son is a sophomore at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, an Orleans Parish School Board charter. Her daughter will be in fourth grade at Metairie Park Country Day, a private school. Her partner’s three children attend K-12 Lusher Charter School — a high schooler, middle schooler, and one in elementary.

“I have one starting on Monday and then my daughter starts on Thursday with two half days and then Lusher starts the following Monday,” she said in one breath. “They were supposed to start Wednesday the 12th, but because of construction issues, they had to push it back to Monday the 17th,” a decision Lusher made just last week.

The varying days off and start times can make things difficult, coordinating pick-ups and who’s taking off when the kids are out of school. McGinley said she’s lucky because she has a fairly flexible university job.

“I can’t imagine any parent who is an hourly worker having to deal with this,” she said, wondering about potential lost wages or inflexible supervisors.

“The prime example is the spring break,” she said. “Some schools will have the spring break the week before Easter, some schools will have it the week after.

“If you have kids that are stuck at different schools then you could end up having to take off two full weeks to try to figure out what to do with your children.”

Many schools in New Orleans give students a week off for Mardi Gras, when some parts of the city are virtually inaccessible — think school buses — and students are marching in parades.

Still, Mardi Gras breaks differ as well. Some schools give students the calendar week of Fat Tuesday off, while others split the days before and after the weekend leading up to the big day.

Parent cooperatives can help with the breaks, where parents take turns watching each others’ kids over breaks. But if someone were new to a school or it’s far from home, McGinley worries that option is not as feasible.

McGinley works for Tulane University, where she says in the last 10 years, different schools and departments have worked to align calendars, like start dates and exam periods.

“The opposite has happened with the New Orleans public schools,” she said.

This is where Deirdre Johnson Burel’s idea for a “common calendar” comes in. Johnson Burel is the executive director of the Orleans Parish Education Network, a local nonprofit working to engage citizens and share best practices in education.

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Johnson Burel envisions an opt-in calendar system for charter schools.

“It would offer like a calendar A, B and C. There would common agreement about start date and end date and major holidays,” she said.

Such a change could be a factor for parents making enrollment decisions. For example, a parent with two kids could pick both a high school and elementary school on schedule A.

“It wouldn’t solve everything,” Johnson Burel acknowledged, but it would hit on the big dates.

McGinley likes the idea.

“You’d have to have a lot of coordination and everything has to be voluntary,” she said. “You can’t have forced participation.”

The system isn’t confusing just for parents.

The Orleans Parish School Board sent out a list of opening days last week, well after some schools had already opened.

School calendars also affect other city systems, such as the flashing school zone lights that warn drivers to slow down near schools. But the reduced speed limits are only enforceable on days when the zone’s correlating school is in session. Already, the city admits to reviewing just some calendars and creating a single best-fit schedule for the lights.

Johnson Burel said schools should realize similar calendars will help parents.

“I think this is a win-win, having a set of options,” she said. “But it really gives consideration to parents and all they have to navigate.”

“Underscore. Exclamation point!”

This story was produced in partnership with The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

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