After racking up nearly $30,000 in lost attendance revenue the first week of school last year, Berkeley Unified is hoping students will be in class when school starts on Wednesday and not hiking in the Sierra, visiting family back east or touring Europe.
Attendance is a high stakes game in California, which uses it to divvy up education dollars. And last year, at least, the district, which for several years has started school the week before Labor Day, was slow out of the gate.
In 2003 when school started Aug. 27, just 8,013 of the district’s roughly 8,900 students showed up for class. With the state penalizing school districts $27.84 per child absence, the dismal first day showing cost the district in the neighborhood of $23,000. District attendance didn’t surpass 8,600 students until Tuesday, Sept. 2—the day after Labor Day—and didn’t reach 8,800 until Sept. 6.
While Berkeley is in a crowded field of districts that start classes before Labor Day—Oakland is the only neighboring district that will open its doors after the holiday—it faces a unique struggle to get its students to the first few days of classes.
Berkeley Unified spokesperson Mark Coplan chalked up the phenomenon to the Berkeley’s transient population. “So many people choose to summer elsewhere it’s a matter of when they decide to come back,” he said.
In addition to mailing out the standard beginning of school packets which include a school calendar, the district has taken the extra step this year of posting messages on each school’s e-tree reminding families that students need to be back by Sept. 1, the first day of school.
Coplan said the district, with the required consent of its unions, moved up the start of school several years ago when Labor Day arrived late and hasn’t reverted to its past tradition.
Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Barry Fike said a recent survey of teachers showed they were split down the middle about whether or not to start classes before Labor Day.
“We haven’t pushed strongly one way or the other,” he said. “If the district wanted to start after Labor Day we would have agreed.”
Superintendent Michele Lawrence said the district had to factor numerous variables into formulating the calendar. In the future, she said, she would like to see the district adopt a year-round schedule.
School Day Set To Change
Berkeley Unified and its teachers’ union have agreed on a new school schedule that will reduce the school day by forty minutes on Wednesdays in return for adding 10 minutes to the other four days of the week
The change is scheduled to begin at elementary and middle schools the week of Monday Oct. 4 and does not affect Berkeley High.
Under the terms of the agreement, teachers will now get four hours a month, all on Wednesdays, to collaborate on lesson plans.
“Teachers want more opportunities to work closely with our colleagues and learn from each other in order to improve our craft,” Fike said in a prepared statement.
As an example of how the new policy will work, if a student was previously dismissed each day at 2:10, the student would now be dismissed at 2:20 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and at 1:30 on Wednesday.
Schools will start at the same time as they had previously.
The district has closed schools early on some Wednesdays in previous years, said Coplan, who added that school officials were still adjusting child care provisions for the new schedule.
“We’ve got a month to gear it up and get arrangements made,” he said.