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The moment my now 10-year-old daughter started kindergarten, I knew that school schedules were a missing piece of the work/family puzzle. From the assemblies at 11:00 a.m. that only a handful of parents can attend to the countless days when children are off or released early from school, sometimes it’s hard to believe we’re living in the 21st century. Yes, most moms of school-age children are in the workforce today (a whopping 70% of us) but you wouldn’t know it if you glanced at a typical school calendar. Let’s use my local district here in Evanston, Illinois as an example. During this school year alone, we had 8 holidays, 3 days off for parent-teacher conferences, 2 teacher in-service half days, 5 early dismissal days (also for teacher training), plus a 2-week winter break and 1-week spring break. And, that’s not even counting the 2+ months the kids have off in the summer.

As if the current schedule wasn’t difficult enough for families to juggle, our district recently proposed to expand the number of early release days to carve out more time for professional development. Now, what parent wouldn’t want their child’s teachers to have top notch training? But, should that come at the cost of even fewer full days of instruction for students and a more chaotic schedule for parents whose work and childcare arrangements often revolve around the school day?

This was the question at the heart of a campaign spearheaded by ParentsWork, an Illinois parents’ organization I started to bring about changes – in our communities, schools, workplaces and laws – to better enable us to care for our children and families. Given our Evanston roots as well as the fact that many of our founding members have children in the public schools here, taking on the calendar seemed like the perfect place to start.

So together with other concerned parents and with the support of our local PTA Council, the “Calendar Mamas” (as I like to call us) researched the issues, submitted Freedom of Information Requests, attended committee meetings, testified before the school board, wrote letters to the editor, and organized a petition drive that garnered over 300 signatures. Not only did we succeed in halting the expansion of early dismissal days in next year’s calendar but perhaps even more importantly, we sparked a community dialogue about the impact of school schedules on the education and care of our children. And hopefully, this will spur additional changes not only in our schools here in Evanston but across the state and our nation.

The American school calendar is long overdue for an overhaul. Originally designed for an agrarian society, it is largely out of touch with the needs of many working families today. And, when you compare us with other countries, we’re pretty low on the totem pole when it comes to the length of our school year, which could have something to do with how we stack up globally.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that children sit behind a desk for 365 days straight or that we turn schools into round-the-clock childcare centers. Nor do I think we should stop advocating for more flexible workplaces and better after school programs. But bringing school schedules into closer alignment with parents’ work realities has to be part of the mix. Whether the solution is a longer school day or a longer school year, getting there won’t be easy. There will be funding issues and union contracts to contend with and it will require an unprecedented partnership between parents and teachers. But the Calendar Mamas here in Illinois are ready to take it on!

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