Politics & Government

Knightdale High will get a calendar that other NC schools want (and the tourism industry hates)

Knightdale High School principal Jim Argent talks to a student committee in this file photo.
Knightdale High School principal Jim Argent talks to a student committee in this file photo. kbettis@newsobserver.com

Knightdale High School will get a new calendar this year that many other North Carolina high schools want but that the state’s tourism industry is against.

The Wake County school board gave initial approval Feb. 5 and final approval Feb. 19 to a proposal that would allow Knightdale High to start the school year in early August instead of in late August. This change allows students to take final first semester exams before winter break. That option isn’t available for most North Carolina schools because of the state’s school calendar law.

“I just wish we could align all of our high schools to this calendar,” school board member Christine Kushner said on Feb. 19 before the unanimous vote approving the change for Knightdale High.

The calendar change will go into effect for Knightdale for the 2019-20 school year.

At issue is the state’s school calendar law that was passed by the General Assembly in 2004 at the request of the tourism industry and some parents. These groups were concerned about how the school year was starting earlier and earlier in August, cutting into summer vacation.

Under current state law, schools can start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. A small number of schools are exempt from the law, such as charter schools, year-round schools and continually low-performing schools such as Knightdale High that are in the state’s restart program.

Multiple bills have been filed over the past decade to exempt some or all school districts from the calendar law. In 2017, two different bills were passed by the state House but died in the Senate.

As of Feb. 20, 36 bills have been filed requesting calendar flexibility for 75 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts.

The House Education Committee discussed a pair of new bills Feb. 5 that would give calendar flexibility to Alamance-Burlington Schools and four districts in Catawba and Davie counties. Advocates for the bills said allowing schools to start in early August would align them with the calendars used at community colleges and not force students to wait until after winter break to take final exams.

“We want you to see what the problems are and see what has changed in education (since 2004) and see if we can’t get a solution,” said Rep. Linda Johnson, co-chair of the House Education Committee and a Republican from Cabarrus County.

Rep. Frank Iler, a Republican from Brunswick County, warned Tuesday that the tourism industry is concerned about the proposed bills. But Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican from Davie County who sponsored one of the calendar bills, said she thinks they can work out a solution that will work for both schools and the tourism industry.

“I do not believe in all my heart that this is going to have a drastic impact against travel and tourism,” Howard said. “You might hear something different, but we’ve worked with travel and tourism for many, many years.”

Wake County doesn’t have to deal with those concerns for Knightdale High because it qualifies for a state program that gives low-performing schools much of the same flexibility from state rules given to charter schools.

Knightdale High School leaders said they’re seeing positive changes such as an increase in the graduation rate and a 50 percent reduction in suspensions. But the school still faces issues such as how a majority of students are performing below grade level.

Jim Argent, Knightdale High’s principal, cited multiple benefits for an early August start, including having first semester finish before winter break and being aligned to the calendar used by Wake Technical Community College.

“This calendar would really help us to focus on innovation,” Argent told the school board on Feb. 5.

Wake school board members said they hope that Knightdale’s success with the new calendar will encourage lawmakers to ease up on the calendar law.

“Let’s take you down to the legislature,” school board chairman Jim Martin said to Argent on Feb. 5. “We need this across the board. Your pilot will help make us make some of the arguments that we need to make.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.