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Archdiocese officials hold town hall with parents on longer school year

February 10, 2011 | 11:23 pm

Scores of parents turned out at a town hall meeting Thursday night to criticize a plan by the Los Angeles Archdiocese to extend the school year at most of its elementary schools.

Virtually all of the speakers during the meeting at Corpus Christi Catholic School in Pacific Palisades lashed out at the idea, saying it was ill planned, would distract from family time and might lead to an exodus of good teachers.

"The perception we have is that it is being shoved down our throats," said Kathy Phelps, who has two children who attend St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School in Westwood.

Parents said they wanted assurances that individual schools would have the final say about whether to increase instructional days.

Kevin Baxter, superintendent of elementary education for the archdiocese, told the crowd that the extension was not mandatory. But he also said that 70% of schools have already indicated they will adopt the extended year and that the department of schools will begin operating on a 200-day calender.

Schools that don't adopt the new schedule could lose ground, he argued. "We would hope that all schools would see the value over time," he said.

Cardinal Roger Mahony and other officials last month announced plans to increase instruction at 210 archdiocese elementary schools by 20 days.  It would be among the longest school calenders in California, the archdiocese said.

Baxter said the goal was to have as many schools as possible move to a 200-day calender for the 2011-12 school year, with all schools adopting the expansion the following year. Schools would retain flexibility in setting start and end dates to accommodate local needs, but most summer breaks would be shortened.

But a week later, after many parents complained about the decision, another archdiocese school official, Chancellor Mary Elizabeth Galt, said lengthening the school year was a recommendation—not a requirement. She said the decision will be left up to each individual campus.

Parents have been confused and concerned about the change. Some say the longer school  year will interfere with family activities, sports and other programs. Others have supported the move, saying it could be educationally better for under-performing children.

Officials argued that the new schedules would still allow for substantial family time and would boost student performance, especially those from low-income backgrounds.

Following the announcement, several dozen parents staged a protest in front of the archdiocese offices downtown, demanding that officials declare formally that the decision about whether to adopt the extended calender would be left up to local schools.

Baxter said he hoped the expanded academic calender would attract new families at a time when public schools are being forced to reduce the school year because of budget cuts.

“The school year extension accentuates our reputation for excellence and further demonstrates to parents who are contemplating a Catholic school the emphasis on quality of education at our schools,” Baxter said in announcing the plans.

The archdiocese, with jurisdiction in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, serves 52,000 elementary and middle school children.

After Baxter spoke Thursday, some parents said that they still were unsatisfied and feared that pastors and principals would feel pressure to go along with the extension.

"I respect what he's doing," said John McNamee, whose two sons attend Corpus Christi, "but I don't think it's in the best interest of all schools.

L.A. Catholic schools to add 20 days to academic year

Archdiocese may be backing off plans to extend school year

-- Carla Rivera