For Parents, Shortened School Year Proves Costly

Posted on 16 July 2010

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By Vivian Po
New America Media

For some low-income parents, the decision by many school districts to shorten the school year has raised anxieties about the extra costs it could impose on them.

Unlike more affluent parents, most are not in a position to pay for extra classes or tutoring to make up for time lost. So they are also trying to find innovative ways to make sure their child does not fall behind academically, according to interviews in Los Angeles and San Francisco by New America Media.

Gabriel Medel, whose son will be a freshman at Hamilton High in Los Angeles in the fall, is the volunteer director of Parents for Unity, an education advocacy group formed by Latino parents in Los Angeles. He believes students who are less fluent in English – typically designated as English Language Learners – will be among the first to feel the impact of a shorter school year.

“The cut will have more impact on those who need more school instructional time and language development time,” said Medel, who works as a full-time Spanish-English translator. He said this is one of the main concerns among Latino parents, whom he said are well informed about the range of cuts the district is making.

But despite his concerns, Medel supports shortening the school year as an alternative to increasing class sizes or laying off teachers, which he said would have even more of a negative impact on English Language Learners who need as much time as possible in the classroom.

Because summer schools have also been cut, Parents for Unity, along with parents, local churches and community organizations have created a three-hour morning program for elementary and middle school students that is able to serve 135 students. Medel hopes to implement a similar program during the regular school year.

Un Un Che, who immigrated to San Francisco from China a decade ago, is thinking ahead about what she will do on the four extra days the San Francisco public schools will be closed during the coming year. She has two daughters at John Yehall Chin Elementary School, and another a preschool in Chinatown. She knows that child care can cost more than $10 an hour, which is often more than parents earn.

Che, who assists with case management at the Wu Yee Children's Services, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, plans to partner with other working parents she knows, asking one parent at a time to take time off from work to look after all the children in a group. That way, she said, they can design group activities or learning sessions for their kids, such as visiting the libraries, parks and museums.

Jenny Mai, a Chinese immigrant who has lived in San Francisco for 20 years, works as a temp worker cleaning houses and in restaurants. She worries about who will look after her son, a third grader at Visitacion Elementary School in the city. “Even one day of school cut (from the calendar) makes it hard on us, ” she said.

Mai said she will probably ask her friends to help during those days because paying for child care is not an option.

She said if her son is not in school, she will have less flexibility to accept work assignments. Her husband works from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day in a restaurant earning minimum wage. Her work schedule depends on notices of temp jobs that arrive as late as just one or two days in advance. Having to reject job offers will not only mean earning less but also likely lead to fewer job offers.

San Francisco parent Daphina Marshall doesn’t have to worry about child care because her 17-year-old daughter will be able to take care of her 9-year-old son when school is out. Both will be out of school the same days. But she wonders how teachers can successfully squeeze the academic year into 176 days, especially at her son’s elementary school. ”Elementary school is when you get your foundation and fundamentals in learning,” said Marshall.

Marshall is a volunteer at Moms Mentoring Mom, a teen mothers support group in San Francisco’s Bay View Hunters Point. She believes a shorter school year will especially have an impact on teen parents. “They cannot afford to take more time off school, ” she said.

Because of its massive budget deficit, the Los Angeles Unified School District cut a week from the end of the school year in June. Vanecia Thompson, whose 13-year-old son attends Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles, believes her son has already missed out on some math instruction because of the shorter year. Ever since she was laid off last year, Thompson has been volunteering three days a week at her son’s school. She said her son’s math teacher skipped parts of the curriculum to fit her lesson plans into fewer instructional days.

To make sure her son’s math keeps up with state and national standards, she is considering putting him in tutorial classes outside the school. But that will impose an extra financial burden on Thompson and her husband, who have four older children in high school and college. As it is, Thompson is considering asking her college-aged daughter to move back home from her dorm at a community college in Culver City to share the burden of child care.

Wu Ching, a Chinese immigrant in Los Angeles whose 12th-grade son has a learning disability, said all students in California deserve more school time to stay competitive in the global environment. "We need more school time, not less,” he said.


Vivian Po is a staff reporter for New America Media.