Parents at Fuquay-Varina school balk at giving up year-round calendar

08/28/2014 5:21 PM

08/29/2014 6:25 AM

Many Wake County families have fiercely resisted efforts to switch their schools to a year-round calendar, but, in a role reversal, parents at two year-round schools are fighting to keep the schedule.

Seven years ago, Ballentine Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina and Wakefield Elementary School in North Raleigh were among 22 schools that converted from the traditional calendar to the year-round calendar over parents’ objections. Now that the option is on the table to switch back, a vocal group of parents at both schools, but particularly Ballentine, say they don’t want to change calendars.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Julie Trevisan, who has one child at Ballentine. “They disrupted our school seven years ago. Now because of their poor planning, they’re trying to send us into a complete life change.”

For more than 20 years, Wake has used year-round schools to save on school construction costs by keeping schools occupied throughout the year, with students attending on staggered schedules.

The proposed schedule changes will be decided Sept. 16 when the Wake County school board votes on whether to convert the two year-round schools to the traditional calendar, which has students in class from late August to early June. Members will also consider whether to put three Cary schools – Alston Ridge and Mills Park elementary schools and Mills Park Middle School – on the multitrack year-round calendar.

The consistent message Wake has received from parents at the five schools is that they don’t want to change whichever schedule is now in place.

The schedule that most families have known for generations is the traditional calendar, in which students get a two-month summer break. But in the year-round calendar, students ditch the extended summer break in favor of three-week breaks at intervals during the school year.

Growth fuels year-round

Wake uses two kinds of year-round schedules. In single track, all students have the same schedule starting in late July.

In multitrack year-round, the students are split into four groups, or tracks, with three in session and one on break. If the school can enroll enough students, capacity can increase by 20 percent or even 33 percent.

Wake’s year-round program underwent a major expansion in 2007, when school leaders cited record growth to convert 22 schools and to open new elementary and middle schools on the year-round calendar.

“We went with it,” said Serena Saw, a Ballentine parent trying to keep the year-round schedule. “We all adjusted and learned to love year-round.”

But when the recession slowed growth, the school board during the past four years has switched several multitrack, year-round schools to single track or to a traditional calendar.

Growth is picking up again with Wake projected to add 3,000 more students this fall for a total enrollment of 156,000 pupils. Alston Ridge and the two Mills Park schools proposed for year-round calendars are so crowded that they have enrollment caps in place, meaning new families who move into an attendance area for one of the schools are sent to other schools with more space.

On Aug. 13, school administrators presented options to the school board’s facilities committee to deal with crowding at Alston Ridge and Mills Park and underenrollment at Ballentine and Wakefield. The calendar options have gotten the most public attention.

Ballentine resists traditional

Over the past two weeks, the school system has asked for public comment online and at community forums.

“From the very beginning of the discussion, they (the school board) realized they needed input from the parents before a decision was made,” said Tim Simmons, a Wake schools spokesman.

Many of the comments from Mills Park families have been against the proposed switch to year-round. Meanwhile, most of the comments on Alston Ridge, which was switched from multitrack to single track in 2011 and now would switch back, have been supportive.

The comments from Wakefield have been mixed, but the overwhelming response from Ballentine families has been against returning to a traditional calendar.

“I just think they’re really, really treating us parents as numbers on a sheet of paper, instead of as families,” said Jill Arnold, who has twins at Ballentine.

Wake school figures show that Ballentine has 478 students, or 65 percent of the school’s capacity. The percentage would rise to 78 percent if the school was on the traditional calendar.

Saw, the Ballentine parent, said removing four unused classroom trailers would raise the enrollment percentage significantly.

Ballentine parents say the school has suffered from lack of attention. Ballentine had 789 students in the 2008-09 school year but lost a large part of its attendance area when two new schools in Fuquay-Varina opened in 2009.

A major concern from Ballentine parents is that if they’re converted they’d still be assigned to a year-round middle school. One of the reasons given for dropping the year-round calendar at Wakefield Elementary is that the school feeds into a traditional-calendar middle school.

‘Kids as pawns’

Trevisan is among the Ballentine parents who say they’ll leave for another year-round school if the school switches calendars. But she’s worried that Wake won’t be able to let families who leave stay on the same schedule even if they already have older siblings at a year-round middle school.

“I want to make sure that we’re not working with three different calendars because they’re using our kids as pawns again,” Trevisan said.

Christina Lighthall, Wake’s senior director of long-range planning, said it would be a high priority to try to keep families on the same calendars and tracks.

Ballentine parents say that options such as assigning more neighborhoods into the school and bringing in students who can’t attend the three capped Holly Springs elementary schools would be “less drastic” than changing the calendar.

“I know nobody wants to get shifted,” said Beth Royall, who has a son at Ballentine. “But if you have schools that are over capacity, it doesn’t make sense to lose capacity by switching us to traditional.”

Simmons said that these ideas will be considered by the board before the decision is made.

School board member Monika Johnson-Hostler, who represents Fuquay-Varina, said she wants to make sure that the opposition she’s hearing from Ballentine families represents more than just a vocal minority.

“I want to make sure that the entire community is being heard,” she said.

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