A Communications Case Study on Efforts to Change the School Calendar

The following case study explores lessons learned when a proposal for a minor change became a major debacle for the Champlain Valley Superintendents Association in Vermont.

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Situation Analysis

The Champlain Valley Superintendents Association (CVSA) is a regional chapter of the VSA, Vermont’s statewide professional association, representing 17 superintendents from Franklin, Addison, and Chittenden counties. In March 2013, the CVSA engaged in a conversation about how to maximize student learning and improve student outcomes in its school districts. Members identified a number of different strategies, one of which was to increase time on learning.

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For some years, research had been showing some positive effects of additional hours and days of school to create the space for more intensive educational experiences for both students and teachers.   

How, they wondered, might we tweak our current calendar to give students more time for the kind of deeper learning we know will help them thrive in a 21st century world?  (School districts in Vermont typically have 175-day calendars.)

Forming a Subcommittee

As part of its exploration, the CVSA formed a subcommittee of five superintendents to research a variety of options for extending learning time and overcoming the well-documented “summer learning loss” that occurs, invariably erasing some of the gains of the previous school year.

Eventually, they settled on what they thought was a slight tweak to the school calendar:  maintaining the 175 student days while building in blocks of time, or inter-sessions, including 10 days during the summer, that could be used for multiple purposes. In essence, the plan would shorten the summer recess by two weeks, redistributing those days throughout the school year.

The inter-sessions would be designed “to be used in a variety of ways, including: student enrichment opportunities, chances to provide timely intervention for students who need it, in-depth and project-based learning, opportunities for teacher professional development, opportunities for teachers to review student data during non-instructional times, and opportunities for families to schedule routine appointments or take vacations without interrupting learning blocks of time.” They called their effort School Calendar 2.0.

Implementing the Idea

The subcommittee presented this idea to their CVSA peers.  Several members said they were not enamored with it, but most of them agreed to move forward with an exploration of the idea.  They discussed a potential rollout of the calendar change with the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, the VT Principals’ Association, the Department of Education, and legislators. Thereafter, members of the CVSA were asked to vet the idea with their School Boards, administrative teams and staff.

While the CVSA also recognized potential barriers to the plan, for example, the need for childcare during inter-sessions, they felt ready to hold an initial “partner summit” with libraries, parks, and community programs to float the idea.  In August 2013, more than 100 people participated in the summit, and the first response was an enthusiastic one.  As a result, the CVSA felt emboldened to schedule four more public forums in various locations across the region, so that no district was standing alone in promoting the new calendar.   They were held at the beginning of October 2013.

Building Public Support and Facing Opposition

Prior to the first forum, however, the public conversation changed markedly. A group calling themselves Save Our Summer (SOS) began a very active campaign against the new calendar proposal. They launched a Facebook page, sent out letters, and stormed the CVSA blog with negative comments.

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SOS was quickly building public resistance to the proposed revised calendar. Approximately 400 people attended the first public forum, many of them opposed to the calendar revisions.  Surprised by the growing intensity of the opposition, but hopeful that dialogue could elevate some of the strengths of the proposal, the CVSA intentionally hired a facilitator and designed a structure for the meeting to maximize both civility and full participation. According to one superintendent, the facilitator, apparently nervous about the negative energy in the room, strayed from the agenda and, at the eleventh hour, switched to an open microphone format. As the superintendent said: “We were dead in the water from that point forward.”

The remaining scheduled forums followed suit in open microphone format, with the majority of speakers voicing opposition. Supporters had a harder time making their voices heard.   In total, 1,000 people attended the four forums. Media coverage reflected community opposition across the Champlain Valley.  Within short order, the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association withdrew their support, as did the Vermont Principals’ Association.   And while five CVSA superintendents remained supportive of Calendar 2.0, the 12 others backed down, unaccustomed to such vociferous community opposition.

In October of 2013, the CVSA, recognizing the lack of broad-based community support for Calendar 2.0, decided to pull back and revisit the issue at a future time.

What Happened?  A Deconstruction of School Calendar 2.0

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In January 2014, a group of youth and adults from school districts in northeastern Vermont, who were enrolled in a course called “Communicating School Redesign Through the Youth-Adult Partnership Lens”, were asked to look more closely at the Calendar 2.0 “debacle.”   Why did the public so aggressively reject the idea? How could the superintendents have so thoroughly miscalculated the response to what they considered a minor tweak?

The Communicating School Redesign course participants consulted the School Calendar 2.0 blog, read media reports, and studied the SOS blog. (Many of them had already been following the controversy and could reflect on how the revised calendar might have been received in their own communities.)  Armed with data, they first reviewed some of the strengths of the Calendar 2.0 campaign.

Strengths:

  • The superintendents were grounded in a commitment to improve learning outcomes.
  • The proposal was based on a robust body of research about time and learning.
  • They identified potential barriers to public acceptance and support.
  • The superintendents wanted to enlist and encourage public comment.
  • They created an online platform/blog space and were highly responsive to community comments.
  • All of the superintendents in the CVSU stood together in the initial rollout.
  • They tied Calendar 2.0 to Act 77, a piece of recently approved legislation in Vermont related to flexibility around learning time and space.

The course participants then reviewed what they considered to be some of the limitations of Calendar 2.0.

Limitations:

  • While the superintendents identified challenges, they did not identify how to overcome those challenges, leaving a vacuum.
  • The public (and teachers) filled the vacuum with worries that Calendar 2.0 would encroach on summer vacation.
  • The overview page on the blog had no framing statements, just a calendar that made Calendar 2.0 seem like a done deal.
  • The Frequently Asked Questions page on the blog began with the technical details, as opposed to a values statement about what was at stake for the community and how Calendar 2.0 could move the districts forward.
  • The superintendents presented what seemed like a fully baked solution instead of working with the community to fully articulate the problem and then unearth solutions together.
  • Save Our Summer engaged people with a catchy slogan and folksy appeal that quickly sowed the seeds of opposition.
  • Save Our Summer had a very effective blog and a strong organizing body that brought people to the public forums.
  • The forums were too large and diffuse. In an effort to hear all voices in an open microphone format, many voices were unwittingly squelched.
  • The idea of revising a long-held school calendar became frightening to the public, particularly in an uncertain economy and shifting social landscape.
  • The public perceived that something was being taken away from them (summer) as opposed to providing new opportunities to their children.
  • CVSA’s partners did not stand behind them; some of the superintendents themselves were lukewarm from the get-go about Calendar 2.0.; that might have served as a warning sign.

Lessons Learned

Lesson 1:  A single policy or program solution must attach to a larger “frame.”

The human brain absorbs information in a kind of hierarchy:  from a general category (also known as a schema or mental model) to increasingly more specific categories.   Policy or program solutions are very specific, which means that the bigger story or “master narrative” of which the policy or program is a part must be articulated and invoked every time the policy or program is introduced—even if it seems redundant to do so. In other words, you must “prime” stakeholders with the master narrative in order for them to absorb the information and recognize its importance.  Too many programs and policies are floating alone in the world, leaving the public to decide why something may—or may not—be important.  Chances are, their understanding will not match yours as an expert.   In this case, the CVSA really needed a couple of years to seed the ground with a story about the need for change in our educational delivery system, and about how student-centered approaches—built on solid science—could deliver the change, as long as additional time on learning was provided.  With such a larger narrative in place, Calendar 2.0 might have represented a genuine solution instead of the problem it was perceived to be.

Two products have emerged from the Communicating School Redesign course that could help emerging framers determine whether they are making or missing the mark: the Communications Campaign Development Rubric and the Public Understanding and Support Assessment Rubric.

Lesson 2:  It takes longer and is much messier than you think.

There are many lessons to be learned from Calendar 2.0.   The first, perhaps, is to recognize that the creators of an idea are always far ahead of their stakeholders.   Change management experts tell us that time is often the reason for an idea’s failure to thrive.  In other words—in this case, the CVSU superintendents had already given a lot of thought to the issue and done a considerable amount of legwork.  In their quest for quick implementation, they may have skipped some important steps in fully engaging stakeholders.  In essence, they might have put themselves into a “beginner’s mindset,” remembering how they first learned about the issue and then built a longer-term—perhaps two or three-year—process for building awareness, understanding, engagement, and support.  Coming out of the gate too quickly and expecting instant implementation is a classic mistake of experts across many disciplines.

Lesson 3:  Summertime is a treasured American institution, not to be taken lightly.

Although the current school schedule in most places was designed around the needs of an agrarian—and then an industrial—society, the American public is very attached to the summer season as a time for travel and leisure, camp and other enrichment activities, and just plain “down time.”   Any program or policy change that encroaches on something so cherished is in danger of being crushed—unless there’s a slow and deliberative process of making an argument in which the benefits far outweigh the sacrifices. When the case was made for Calendar 2.0, the sacrifices quickly moved to the foreground.

Lesson 4:  Design and implement an effective process whereby all voices can be heard and considered.

To their credit, the CSVA went to great lengths to design a process for two-way communication, creating a set of public forums to give members of the community an opportunity to ask questions and voice their opinions.  In implementation, however, the design fell apart when the facilitator allowed an open-microphone format, which gave the organized opponents most of the airtime.  Sticking to a more democratic format in which room is made for people with varying perspectives might have shifted the public conversation and perhaps kept a door open for re-considering the merits of Calendar 2.0 in the near future

Lesson 5:  Bring youth to the table for any conversation about school change from the very outset.

Toolkit_studentsugarbushA critical element of student-centered learning is about youth taking greater ownership of their educational experience, including having an authentic role in decision-making.  Unfortunately, students did not appear to be included in any of the early conversations about Calendar 2.0, nor did they seem to be consulted at any point in the process.  School leaders might remind themselves that any new policy or program that relates to students should fully engage them in the conversation, and as early as possible.  Valuable insights are sure to be gained!  We have seen, time and again, that young people can be extremely powerful and credible advocates for change.

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