School is now in session—or is it? Academic and economic pressures are prompting school districts to make creative calendar decisions. What’s the impact on school nutrition operations? The Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City (ACGC) School District in Grove City, Minn., is long and narrow, like a pencil, stretching 340 square miles. If you drove an entire day’s worth of all the school bus round-trip routes, it would be the equivalent of driving from the center of the district—located in the western part of the state—all the way to Chicago! And that, put simply, was the motivation for the ACGC School District to change to a four-day school week, according to Business Manager Dan Tait. One less day of school each week means one less day of bus transportation—and a lot less costly bus fuel burned. Using that long road trip as an equivalent is a compelling approach that can carry practical resonance. “If I had someone making that wasteful drive and I had the option to eliminate it, I would,” asserts Tait. “In essence, that’s what we did.” Slashing one full day of transportation costs—Mondays, in this case—saved the district more than $100,000 this past school year. “That’s significant,” Tait emphasizes. “That allows us to hire two teachers, nearly three. All it takes is to stop wasting diesel fuel.” It wasn’t a totally new idea. Back in the Seventies, the district had instituted a four-day week for half of a school year during the infamous gas crisis of that era. Fast-forward to today, when a neighboring district also had requested approval from the state to switch to a four-day week. “As soon as they were approved, we got in there right behind them,” Tait recounts. The district expanded its daycare program, so those working families that needed such service had an option when school was closed. As for the acceptance level of the four-day week, it sounds like smiles all around. “The student body loves it, parents love it and the staff loves it,” says Tait, noting that the number of families and staff absences for medical appointments dropped, as did the number of teacher substitute days. “It is good for ACGC. It is educationally sound and financially sound. I hope it is here to stay.” Creative Calendars A shorter week is one example of a calendar change that more and more school districts seem to be making as this school year gets underway. It’s no surprise to conclude that the sluggish U.S. economic recovery is putting budgetary pressure on school boards to devise creative solutions. But the shorter week is not the only school calendar adjustment being witnessed in American communities these days. Longer days, longer school years and year-round school sites all are ideas that are being tried—and, in some districts, tried, abandoned and tried again. That’s because the economy is not the only compelling reason to make calendar changes. Academic philosophy plays a role, too. For example, charter schools are leading a current movement toward longer academic days, even in a traditional five-day school week. Working within a smaller constituency of parents and teachers, administrators successfully make the case to extend the school day for added learning and experiential opportunities for students. In Chicago, residents have been weighing in on a months-long debate about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s call to create a longer school day for Chicago Public Schools, which, if implemented, could be the longest in the country. The mayor and other proponents point to the success of much longer school days in other developed nations, which are increasingly competing with America in a global economy. Some districts turn to a year-round school calendar as a way to handle speedy population growth. Assigning children to different calendar tracks so they aren’t in school all at the same time means you can enroll more students at one site—saving money or postponing the need for new school construction. JoAnne Robinett, SNS, principal of America’s Meal, an Ohio-based child nutrition consulting and training business, says she has noticed another calendar trend: More districts are starting school earlier in August. “It used to be that districts were agricultural-based, with school starting close to or after Labor Day,” she recounts. “Then, the year-round schools began starting up in July. Now many more traditional-calendar schools are starting earlier in August, closer to the beginning of the month.” Whatever it might be, a change in the school day or school year likely will have an impact on school nutrition operations. Take a look at some of the examples that follow; it’s possible that your school board might be considering changes in the future—or even right now—and you will want to be ready. Taking a Short Cut Back in Minnesota, Tait concedes that the four-day week adopted by Atwater- Cosmos-Grove City School District has had an impact on the school nutrition program. “We had an 11% reduction in meals served,” he says. (Wait, shouldn’t losing one day out of five mean a 20% reduction? The total is less, says Tait, because of the previous holiday-based four-day weeks.) With the reduction in meals served, “We had to make personnel cuts to balance the reduced revenues,” reports Tait. “We needed to learn how to use the staff we had. We had our issues.” During the 2010-11 school year, the district’s first year using the shorter-week calendar, the school nutrition budget came up short, by a mere $2,300. That wasn’t close enough for Tait, however, who insisted on a balanced budget. The district raised prices, and at the end of 2011-12, the school nutrition department anticipated it would break even once all the bills were paid and accounts settled. Foodservice Director Bonnie Konietzko has earned respect for handling the change. “Our foodservice director is a marvel in stretching her budget,” commends Tait. “Her staff has learned to work in the new setup. It was probably a one-year learning curve.” Konietzko explains that the biggest impact on staff was losing a day’s work and taking a pay cut for a 32-hour work-week. “We serve a little less food, and our food costs are down,” Konietzko adds. And, she notes, staff is more careful about opening a package of something only if needed, particularly before the three-day weekend. In the ACGC district, the number of state-required instructional hours is made up in longer days. Still, no changes were made in the length of lunch periods, but depending on buses arriving on time, breakfast can run longer and the spacing of time between breakfast and lunch is now greater—a bonus for those who decry school lunch periods that begin at 9:30 or 10:00 a.m.! While many predicted that ACGC students would be “wiped out” by having to be in school for a longer day, that backlash didn’t happen. There are a few five-day school weeks scattered throughout the year—and now, unsurprisingly, the complaints are about how those weeks feel long. The Abridged Version When Shane Bosaw, director of foodservice for Webster County (Ky.) Schools, was hired in 2011, he joined a district that had been the second district in the state to implement (back in 2003) a shorter four-day week schedule. With only a year of experience in Webster under his belt, Bosaw admits he is no expert authority on the subject of the four-day week, but from his perspective, it offers both pros and cons. Like his counterparts in Minnesota’s ACGC, Bosaw acknowledges that his district and his school nutrition operation had to make some adjustments. “There have been difficulties,” concedes Bosaw. “The four-day week reduces staff hours and ultimately reduces yearly take-home pay for staff, and we have one day of no revenue each week.” Webster County, like ACGC, closes on Mondays. “I can see the benefits to the district,” says Bosaw, “but ultimately it hurts our bottom line, since we are a self-sufficient program.” Unlike ACGC, the Webster County district makes up its state-required instructional hours in a longer school year, which begins August 1 and ends May 24, or longer if the district must use snow days. The school day also is lengthened by about 30 minutes, although this has not affected the amount of time allotted for school meals. But the calendar change does have another financial impact on the school nutrition operation. The longer year shortens Webster County’s summer feeding program—reducing opportunities to capture that program’s higher meal reimbursement rate. Bosaw reports his operation will try the National School Lunch Program’s Seamless Summer Option this year, given the shortened period for summer service (not to mention his observation that his staff seem over-burdened by the paperwork associated with the traditional administrative option). This month, the shortened school week will present Bosaw and his team with another challenge: meeting the new meal pattern regulation. “The new meal pattern rules are all based on a five-day school week, which will force us to be somewhat creative with our menus,” Bosaw reports. The school nutrition department most likely will analyze menus from Tuesday to Tuesday rather than Monday to Friday. This means the school nutrition team will not be able to serve French fries on Fridays as has been a tradition, since the new requirements mandate the menuing of four non-starch vegetables from the varied color groups before menuing potatoes. Fortunately, Bosaw can cite a few pluses about the unusual schedule. “Since our maintenance department does not have weekend hours, they are able to utilize Mondays to work on equipment repairs and routine scheduled maintenance in our kitchens. If an oven or dishwasher goes down, they can usually get it fixed on Mondays when we are not cooking.” He’s also hopeful that the school board will go along with a new proposal he has developed to use the extra hours on Mondays for staff training or cleaning projects in the school kitchens. Overall, Webster County’s four-day school week seems to enjoy good staff and community response. “I personally love the four-day week,” insists Bosaw. “It gives me a chance to get caught up on my work.” A “Scramble” System Pleasantville Community School District, in Marion County, Iowa, is going into its third year using what it calls an “innovative” school calendar. From the second week in August until the Christmas break, schools operate on a five-day week. From January through March, however, schools follow a four-day week schedule. Then the five-day week resumes until the end of the year in late May. Like the other districts profiled in this article, Monday is the non-instructional day. The motivation for these unique calendar changes, which were approved by the Iowa State Department of Education, was budgetary. The Pleasantville district expected to experience significant savings in bus transportation and some personnelreduction costs, but in particular, it counted on energy savings during the winter months, when the most energy is consumed—and when utility rates are higher. Those closed Mondays can be used to supplement or make up for snow days built in to the schedule, but the district hasn’t had to take any snow days the past two years. Foodservice Director Shelly Cook has not had to make any cuts in her 10-member staff, in spite of the reduced number of work days. Like other districts featured in this piece, her team has suffered a cut in pay—in Pleasantville, it amounts to two full weeks lost. (It’s a $6,500 savings for her operation’s bottom line, though.) “Some of the staff, it hurts,” says Cook. But given that the district is 30 miles from Des Moines, Iowa, and there aren’t many other options for similar work nearby, most staff members have stuck with their jobs, in spite of the pay cut. The school day was lengthened by 30 minutes for the entire school year, so students are in school from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to comply with the required classroom hours. On Mondays, students can receive tutorial help, participate in certain educational programs or receive one-onone assistance on computers. The official time off allows some of the secondary students to obtain part-time jobs. Daycare service also was provided on the 14 Mondays that school was closed last year. “For the most part, parents accepted it well,” reports Cook. And “Students seem to like it.” Go Long In Indianapolis, the school board approved a “balanced” school calendar for academic purposes. Indianapolis Public Schools adopted the new schedule in the 2011-12 school year as a way to provide children who need extra academic assistance with 20 additional days of learning. The school year begins on the first Monday in August and goes for nine weeks. In October, there is a two-week “intercession.” During this period, students who are falling behind in classes participate in remediation coursework, while students not identified by teachers as needing the extra work have vacation. All students receive a week off at Thanksgiving, the usual winter break and another long break in spring. The school year ends in mid-June. Jane Cookson, RD, Indianapolis director of foodservice, says that when the district was looking into the idea of the calendar change, studies showed that a summer break of two-and-a-half to three months had a negative impact on students, particularly in poor urban districts. It was decided that more frequent breaks for students and remediation during those breaks would be a benefit. It has been an adjustment to have a six-week summer break instead of the more conventional 12-week summer, says Cookson, but the structure allows school nutrition staff to work the same total number of weeks during the calendar year. The team is still adjusting to the changed schedule in order to predict eating patterns. “For this first year, we had no history,” she explains of the bumpy transition. “October was not a pretty place here. It was just like using a big crystal ball. We virtually had no historical data for this. You better believe we do now. This coming year will be better.” During the intercession, Cookson received permission to switch to Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) rules to serve meals to students who were attending school. “It seems strange to do the SFSP in October,” reports Cookson. In addition, “It means changing our accounting systems three times a year.” Lunch periods during the fall intercession are shorter and fewer— two, instead of three or four, for example. Breakfast and lunch are open to anyone 18 years old and younger to drop by, and Cookson says they had a few takers during the last school year. While there were no significant menu changes, for those two weeks, Cookson and her team made sure they served the most popular items, in order to keep waste to a minimum. Initially they overproduced—see the earlier reference to working without any history—“But we got smart fast,” she reports. They got creative, too, using data from summer school enrollments that show that 60 to 65% of those who say they will attend actually do so. Using that benchmark, they planned for 75% showing up for the intercession to be covered, ultimately finding that the 65% guideline held during this time of year, too. Although the district’s 2011-12 numbers were not yet final at the time of this interview, Cookson states with confidence that the new calendar was not more costly to her department. Where a district could have problems, she predicts, is when there are too many schools open with too few students. “We have plans to have fewer schools open during remediation,” notes Cookson. “This year we held our breaths, because our staff and the teachers were stretched pretty thin.” Perpetual Motion Wake County, N.C., is one of those rare places in the country experiencing continual population growth, thanks in part to the famed Research Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, which supports measurable job increases in the area. Marilyn Moody, SNS, is senior director of child nutrition services for Wake County Public School System, and she reports that the district is adding some 5,000 to 7,000 students each year. (Even during the height of the recession, population continued to grow, albeit at a slower rate of 2,000 to 3,000 students per year.) Ten years ago, the district totaled 123 schools. Compare that to the beginning of the coming 2012-13 school year, when that number will be 160. The expansion hasn’t been all about new construction, either. Some schools have been converted from space in old office buildings or former grocery stores so that enrollment could be accommodated without delay. “We don’t have enough buildings, and we had to have schools up quickly,” details Moody. In the Wake County district, a yearround school calendar is mandatory for two-thirds of the elementary and middle schools, which are organized into tracks. Students attend classes for nine weeks, then have three weeks off and then repeat the cycle. The summer feeding program is extended throughout the school year for those students who are tracked out but return to school for remediation and enrichment programs. This schedule means that Moody and her team feed students virtually every day of the year. Among the pluses for school nutrition staff: They have 12-month jobs and their health insurance premiums are spread over 12 payments rather than nine, so they get more take-home pay. “It’s a win-win for staff,” asserts Moody. She cites another positive plus: “The beauty of the schedule is that schools don’t close. We don’t have to go through the close-down process in kitchens, emptying the refrigerators or shutting off equipment. That means the lifetime of the equipment is extended. When it is used and maintained continually, it performs better.” Without regular down time, preventive maintenance on equipment is scheduled periodically, with new part installation occurring during routine checks. Meal periods stay consistent throughout the year. But across the district, school enrollments change every three weeks. Because parents prefer certain tracks over others, and some tracks are less attractive, the tracks are not loaded evenly, reports Moody. So, four employees might work at one school for one track, but only three employees at the same school are needed for another track. Moody uses a flexible staffing schedule, sending certain staff members to work at multiple sites when needed to manage the changing customer numbers. Staff members can opt for a permanent schedule, but some like the flexible work, she notes. Indeed, some request to mirror the nine-week on, three-week off pattern in order to be home when their children are out of school. Year-round staff gets paid for 10 state holidays. But in total, they work 49 weeks per year. Moody has observed differences in student eating patterns based on the different tracks. “There may be better eaters in one track than another,” she says. “It takes us a year to figure out their eating patterns, and then they change again.” She applies a menu cycle and production records that help predict how much food is needed. “We follow the eating patterns,” she says, “but we don’t want to rely on those completely.” Wake County high schools maintain a traditional calendar to maintain sports and academic schedules. “Year-round school has not been practical in the high schools. Parents can’t work out the schedules and so they are not moving to change,” Moody reports. While there are numerous benefits to the perpetual calendar for younger students, Moody concedes that “it is not the most parent-friendly.” Nonetheless, the district has achieved first-place ranking in Forbes magazine’s list of best school districts. Return to Tradition At one time, most of the 48 elementary schools in Corona-Norco (Calif.) Unified School District, just south of Los Angeles, were on a year-round school calendar based on tracks. Today, however, just seven schools are year-round. The rest of the elementary schools have returned to a traditional calendar, along with the district’s secondary schools. The year-round approach had been adopted to help the district comply with state requirements to reduce classroom sizes. But as state and local governments continue to face budgetary squeezes, the state is relaxing these rules, now allowing districts to increase classroom size. And that’s better for school nutrition—at least that’s the opinion of Betsy Adams, coordinator of child nutrition services. “The problem with tracks is in the changes in student populations,” asserts Adams. Her staff gives their best effort to predict food usage, but making determinations regarding how food will be used and what menu choices will be popular can be challenging, with different kids in school at varying times. As with other districts featured in this piece, Corona-Norco schools can opt to offer an intercession period when students are “off track.” During that time, students can come to school for a meal, but the school nutrition operation doesn’t register them in the POS system, because they are technically not in school for this term. It means adding students back into the system by hand—if they come for a meal. And, “We have to do a lot of that,” reports Adams. In addition, some tracks have more students than others, because they are more popular with parents. And then, there are notable, but unexplainable, differences in food preferences among the various tracks. “Each school population doesn’t always like the same things; I couldn’t tell you why. But managers will say, ‘Track D is on, and they don’t like something.’ You want to offer what they like, or you risk wasting food,” she notes. Another downside for kids on yearround tracks relates to the consequence that the school nutrition department can afford to conduct just one special promotion per school. So, if they offer a turkey feast before Thanksgiving, only the students on that track will get to enjoy the special meal. Those out of school at that time won’t get a similar special promotion later in the year, when they are back in school. That is true of taste-testing or other activities. “We can’t hit them all for a special event,” acknowledges Adams. “The kids lose out.” Over the course of the last 25 years, the district has been “building, building, building,” recounts Adams. With a growing student population, and the state mandate, moving to year-round schools was considered the most viable option for the district. But as the district’s growth has stabilized, and with recent changes in the classroom-size regulations, Corona- WWW.SCHOOLNUTRITION.ORG • SchoolNutrıtıon 55 Norco has found it more cost-effective to resort to the traditional calendar at most sites. Unfortunately, this change has meant some budgetary squeezes on school nutrition staff who now have lost overall work hours. “It is hard on the staff,” concedes Adams. “Staff positions in those seven remaining year-round schools are coveted jobs.” Nonetheless, she predicts that within 5 to 10 years, all the district’s schools will be back on a traditional calendar, and she’s already enjoying the transition. “It helps to have a little downtime” in the office, says Adams. “With everybody on tracks, there is no downtime.” New Day, New Year As with so many aspects of society, out-ofthe- box strategies to address thorny problems are becoming more commonplace in school communities. Gone are the familiar and traditional approaches to school scheduling that most of us experienced in our own youth. A longer or shorter time interval will affect a wide array of conventional approaches to school nutrition services. The secret to success is being accepting of change, preparing for it and being flexible and nimble in responding to future changes. Most important, make sure you keep your calendar handy! Penny McLaren is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Wash., and a former editor of this publication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photography by Creatas/School Days, Comstock Images, Digital Vision and Poka Dot. BONUS WEB CONTENT Online at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent, you will find additional perspectives from school nutrition operators in Bozeman, Mont., and Xenia, Ohio, who made creative adjustments as a result of changes to the school year calendars in their districts. Visit the above URL to access this exclusive web content.
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