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2021 blocks

CA Curious

Looking ahead to a new ‘typical’

December 10, 2020

Every year about this time, we circulate a draft of the next year’s academic calendar before finalizing it in January. It is an opportunity to give our community a heads up so they can start thinking about the coming year and a chance to solicit feedback. Over the past several years, there have been no changes to the calendar once the draft has been posted. 

However, this year, I want to draw your attention to a fairly significant change to the Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks and explain a bit of the background. Please indulge me with what will no doubt be the longest “calendar explanation” you’ll ever read.  

For those who would prefer just the highlights of the significant changes:  

  • Thanksgiving Break for MS students: Wed Nov 17 – Fri Nov 26 
  • Thanksgiving Break for US students: Mon Nov 22 – Fri Nov 26 
  • Winter Break for MS students: Mon Dec 20 – Fri Dec 31 
  • Winter Break for US students: Mon Dec 20 – Wed Jan 5 

If that gives you a headache: take an aspirin, rest your eyes for a moment, and read on for a more detailed explanation.  

It all starts with semesters vs. trimesters 

This year, the Upper School switched to a semester academic schedule, while our Middle School remained on trimesters. This may seem odd, and it is worth a more in-depth explanation.  

When the school was founded in 1996, a great deal of thinking went into building around a trimester schedule. Two significant advantages stood out. 

  • Assessment and Stress: Trimesters were viewed more favorably than semesters because they gave teachers and students more exposure to material before a grading period (which traditionally came at the quarter mark). CA has always believed in the intrinsic motivation of learning and wanted to institutionalize that by having fewer times when we give report cards and focus on grades – three as opposed to four times a year.  
  • Planning and Recoup Time: Another key feature of the trimester schedule was the ability to build in a two-week break for students at the end of a marking period. Importantly, several of these days have been used by faculty as professional days to close out one term and collaborate on curriculum and activities for the next term.  

Changes in the Upper School 

As a part of our strategic planning process, the Upper School has made several changes to their program to enhance student choice – giving them more chances to “own their own learning.” These changes started even before the strategic plan with the introduction of the Path Program in the social sciences department, which introduced a selection of topical, trimester-based history courses in the ninth- and tenth-grade years. This has expanded in other grades to new trimester-based selections in English, world languages, PE, and fine and performing arts. 

Not only are these choices beneficial in helping students delve deeper into areas of interest, but they also give students more flexibility and variety in course selection and more ability to craft their own unique narrative about their educational journey. That sense of self-awareness and ownership is so important as students apply and prepare to transition into college – where even greater choices and decisions await.  

However, there have been two significant tradeoffs to adding so many trimester based courses into the schedule:  

  1. First off is that a trimester is not that long, and it can be a challenge to find opportunities to dive a bit deeper into more complex material or build off of earlier aspects introduced in a course.  
  1. Second, all of these trimester courses end up on the transcript – introducing waves of grade anxiety that didn’t exist when nearly all our courses were year-long. In essence, these new courses did the exact opposite of what we chose the trimester calendar for all those many years ago … to reduce stress and unnecessary focus on grades.  

Finally, a smaller but not inconsequential factor is that, as we’ve expanded our opportunities for choice and experiential learning, more and more students are blending outside courses and programs into their learning journeys. They may be taking online classes with the Global Online Academy or the VHS Collaborative or participating in place-based programs such as High Mountain Institute or the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. All of these programs operate on a semester calendar, and meshing them with our trimester system has grown more complex as more students pursue more programs.  

While we are only in our first year of the semester calendar, early feedback has been positive. When discussing grade anxiety, it is also important to note that, with the change to semesters, we have not adopted quarterly report cards. We do report “mid-term grades,” which we also did at the mid-trimester level. These are important check-ins but very different than a report card.  

All told, these changes are unique to the Upper School. While the Middle School has adopted more choice within their courses, they generally still remain year-long, with grade check-ins three times a year. The trimester system still fits the needs, and the program set up in the MS quite nicely.  

So, what does this mean for the calendar? 

This background can be helpful in understanding why we have shifted the breaks in the calendar. The addition of a week of instructional time for the Upper School does two critical things. First, it gives more balance to the first-semester and second-semester courses. Second, it takes away the momentum killer of a two-week break right before semester end, rather than at the end of the trimester.  

The breaks also take into account the now different divisional needs for planning/professional time.  

We recognize that this might prove slightly inconvenient for some families with children in both divisions. However, we hope that, given enough advance time for planning, it will be manageable.  

You will notice that we made no changes to the two-week break in the spring. That break does fit nicely as a mid-point break for the US semester.  

Finally, a preemptive answer to some lingering questions 

We suspect that you may have two other questions regarding next year’s calendar: 

Will the start times remain the same? 

Yes. We implemented new, staggered start times as both a pandemic and wellness initiative. We believe the sleep research is strong, and will continue with these new start times next year. We will reassess again a year from now, when we get a better sense of potential impacts on travel time and athletics.  

Will Flex Days remain? 

Yes. We appreciate the flexibility (pun intended) families have shown as we roll out some new programs this year. We’ve learned a lot, and we expect the program and the communication will continue to improve.  

We will communicate a much more detailed Flex Day calendar in the spring. The calendar will look different; we expect that some flex days will be used for more academic purposes once we can get everyone back on campus (such as days where all classes meet for shorter periods or some classes meet for makeup/review sessions).   

That was a lot, and we are open to feedback. Please feel free to send it to me directly.

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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