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Posted at 12:29 PM ET, 02/11/2010

Private schools to make up some snow days

By Valerie Strauss

There is a joke among families who spend $30,000 or so send their kids to private schools that the more they pay in tuition, the fewer days their kids are in class.

There is no ratio of dollars to school days, but at least some private schools don’t have to stay open as long as public schools do each year.

State legislatures mandate how many days public schools must be open, and state officials have to grant permission for a reduction in that number if an emergency has forced schools to close for an extended period.

Thirty states set the minimum number of instructional days in a school year at 180 days, 11 states set it between 160 and 79 days, two states (Kansas and Ohio) are above 180 days, and eight states have no minimum number of school days, according to the nonprofit Education Commission of the States. But even in some 180-day states, kids wind up going less; 98 precent of Michigan public schools held fewer than 180 days of classes last year for various reasons, according to the nonprofit Center for Michigan.

Most school systems build days in their calendars for emergencies, but sometimes the limit is exceeded. When that happens, school systems will sometimes add extra school days to the end of the year in June, cancel holidays, shorten spring break, or seek permission from state officials to go below the mandate. Many public schools systems in the greater Washington area are now wrestling with this issue.

It turns out that private school heads are having the same conversations.

Some states require private schools to stay open the same number of days as public schools.

Virginia is one of those states--180 days or 990 hours for everyone. In the District, however, private schools have no mandated minimum. In Maryland, the rule is a minimum of 170 days for approved private schools and a minimum of 180 days for public schools.

So Virginia private schools will have to find a way to make up the days.

"Yes, if they abide by the law," chuckled George McVey, president of the Virginia Council of for Private Education.

Even in the District, though, where schools don’t have to make up the time, some will, though final decisions have not been made.

At Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama’s daughters attend, assistant director Ellis Turner said that days are built into the calendar for this purpose.

“Memorial Day is one of those,” he said. “Another is a teacher workday that could be used.”

Beauvoir School head Paula Carreiro said that she has been talking to her counterparts at the other National Cathedral schools, St. Albans School for boys and National Cathedral School for girls about how to make up some of the time--though probably not all of it.

There was a fleeting moment when they considered Presidents Day, which is this Monday, but that was quickly dropped because a lot of families already have plans for the day. She said that in the late 1990s, the Beauvoir school year was extended but that was an unpopular plan.

“Trying to match instructional needs with family needs is the big goal,” she said.

Carreiro’s husband, Peter Branch, head of Georgetown Day School in the District, has also started conversations with people in the school community about how to make up some of the missed time.

Kimberly Bennett, a spokesman for Washington International School in the District, said the calendar there has some days built in, too, but no decisions have been made about how to change the school schedule.

Hence the joke about private school kids spending less time in school; many of them do. But private school officials hasten to say that they make sure the instructional quality does not suffer, and, anyway, educational research shows a complicated record about how student achievement is affected by time spent in school. Kids can sit in school 24 hours a day but if they have lousy teachers, they won’t get much out of it.

Besides, kids in these elite private schools don't seem to suffer in terms of the conventional measure of success: Their standardized test scores are higher on average than the average national scores, and the most highly selective colleges are very very kind to them during college admissions season. The Wall Street Journal in 2007 surveyed the freshman classes at eight prestigious colleges and found that some of the elite private high schools sent students as freshman in very large numbers.

Here’s the dilemma for some private school heads: Parents complain that their kids aren’t in school enough---and it seems fair to say that more class time in class in a high quality program spells more learning. But then again, any attempt to change the schedule encounters fierce resistance from some parents.

“It’s never an easy thing,” Carreiro said. “We have just decided that no matter what we do there will be people who think it is great and people who don’t.”

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 11, 2010; 12:29 PM ET
Categories:  Private Schools  | Tags:  private schools, snow days  
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Next: Is this fair? National Merit qualifying scores differ by state


While privates may have less days in school, they tend to have longer school days. When you do the calculations they usually end up being in school for more hours out of the year than their public school counterparts.

Posted by: grantc2 | February 15, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

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