Gilbert Public Schools started its new school year in July this year, the result of a new calendar the governing board passed the plan in February 2021.
“We’ve always had a certain constituency here in Gilbert, both from staff and parents, saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing what the neighboring school districts are doing?’” said Jason Martin, GPS’ elementary education assistant superintendent.
This new schedule is being rolled out in GPS for the first time this school year, which started eight days earlier than any other year on Tuesday, July 26.
“The earlier start ensures that students are provided with more opportunities for enrichment programs and academic intervention when necessary,” GPS Communications Specialist Kailey Latham wrote in a press release.
Previously, Gilbert Public Schools utilized a “1-2-1" calendar, which gave students and staff one week off for fall and spring breaks and two weeks off for winter. This new schedule offers a “2-2-2" calendar, which gives two weeks off for each seasonal break and a shorter summer.
The district presented surveys to all Gilbert Public Schools staff and parents in 2018 and 2020. Between the two years, district staff favoring the new schedule rose from 63% to 65% and parents rose from 48% to 51%, Martin said.
“There were surveys done prior to this that had lower percentages, both from the staff and the parents,” Martin said. “But they always keep going up two or three percentage points every couple of years.”
While the survey presented by the district showed that the 2-2-2 schedule was favored by the staff and parents, some people still feel that the new schedule disrupts traditional summer activities.
Meg Hess is a GPS parent whose children are ages 15, 13, 10 and 6, giving her and husband Matthew two elementary students, one in junior high and one in high school. She said she is taking a wait-and-see approach to the new calendar.
“I don't have a strong opinion about it yet, obviously, because I like to give things a try,” she said. “It’s kind of like I tell my kids — ‘just try it, maybe you'll like it.’ But I don't love how early it starts. I don't love starting in July.”
That early start is perhaps the starkest change of the calendar.
"When I saw the first day of school this year, it really hit me: We’re starting in July,” said Milena Delgado, mother of a Highland High School senior.
She said she understands the reasoning that went into the decision and respects the positives it provides. Yet, she still sees some overarching consequences.
In particular, her son, who plays golf, was unable to attend several tournaments due to his school’s new early start date.
"My son is missing out on all the summer programs that he could have been in,” she said. “He missed golf tournaments throughout the whole first week because other schools are still out.”
Hess’ high-school daughter, a softball player, faced the same dilemma with an out-of-state camp in August.
“It makes it a little bit tricky,” she said.
Delgado said she is relieved that this is her last year as a district parent, so she will not have to worry about how the new schedule will impact her in the future.
“Last year, I was gone the whole month of July, and a lot of people do that,” she said. “It’s a bummer to know that it can’t happen again.”
However, Martin said the district has taken all necessary steps to ensure that summer will last as long as possible. The current school year will end May 25, and the 2023-24 school year is expected to begin on July 25. This gives students exactly two months for their summer breaks.
“We’ve taken out unnecessary administration work days, so we didn’t have to start quite as early in July,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as huge of a change as people think.”
That still may not be enough time in Delgado’s estimation.
“Some kids need their jobs in the summer to be able to support their activities through the following year,” Delgado said. “The district is cutting that opportunity short.”
Many concerns remain prevalent for families with elementary-aged children, including how the hot summer temperatures will impact the students’ recess time.
“Plans are in place for the start of the school year when summer temperatures could potentially be an issue on some days for outdoor recess,” Latham wrote in the press release. “If there are days where there is a heat advisory, elementary students will be inside and provided with board games, videos and other alternative activities for fun during recess.”
Longer breaks throughout year
Despite the shorter summer length, families will now have other opportunities to take trips throughout the school year. According to the academic calendar for this school year, the three major breaks will begin Oct. 3, Dec. 21 and March 13.
“Some families like going on vacations not just during the summer,” Martin said. “Now they have two weeks in October and March where they can have that flexibility as well.”
Hess said she was not sure that was all that attractive as an option, though she may take some days off to be with her kids.
"The weather is the best in both of those breaks in Arizona, so it's hard to take a vacation when the weather's so good,” she said. “You want to leave in the summer.”
Delgado emphasized that while the 2-2-2 schedule appears to be a nice break, it has other repercussions.
“Teachers say that it’s really hard to get the kids focused again after being off for two weeks,” she said. “Once the kids finally get into a nice groove, they have another big break.”
With experience as an elementary educator, Martin ensures that the additional week off will have little effect on the overall classroom system.
“You’re always going to want to reteach routines and procedures,” he said. “That’s always a good thing to do whether it’s one week or two weeks off.”
Finding child care
Additional childcare programs are another frequent concern for working parents.
“Actually, my heart goes out to because in the summer, there are summer programs,” Hess said. “There's so many summer programs for families that have working parents. But then in those two breaks, I think a lot of people have to scramble as to where they put their kids. Fortunately, I have older girls, but it kind of puts it on them to be the baby sitters.”
However, Martin confirmed that the district’s Very Important Kids, or VIK Club, which offers before and after school care, will continue to run as usual following the district calendar.
High school sports will also remain the same, as they are governed by the Arizona Interscholastic Association rather than Gilbert Public Schools. Student athletes will likely continue their sports over breaks just as they did on the 1-2-1 schedule, Martin said.
“The nice thing for students is if they don’t have school, they may change the practice schedule to during what would typically be the school day,” he said.
District calendars are created on a two-year basis, Martin said. Therefore, Gilbert Public Schools is committed to the new schedule from now through 2024.
While the 2-2-2 model is set for the next two years, there has been no discussion on the schedules for the following years. Planning of the future calendars will rely on the success of the current 2-2-2 schedule.
“Although I have found that people are very adaptive, change always takes time,” Martin said. “We just have to live through it the first year to experience any pros and cons.”
Tom Blodgett contributed to this report.