Metro

Boston schools chief proposes axing Feb. break

Tommy Chang, superintendent of Boston Public Schools, is proposing changes to the district’s calendar.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/file 2016
Tommy Chang, superintendent of Boston Public Schools, is proposing changes to the district’s calendar.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang wants to shake up the district’s calendar by starting classes before Labor Day and potentially scrapping the popular February vacation in favor of lengthening the winter holiday break.

Even modest changes to the schedule would have a ripple effect for families’ vacation and child-care planning.

An earlier opening date, while doing away with the treasured post-Labor Day start, would prevent students from potentially attending classes well into June, particularly in years with many snow days.

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And lengthening the holiday break that runs from Christmas into the New Year would make time for Boston’s increasingly international student body to visit relatives overseas. In the past three years, absences ticked up about 3 percent in the days right after the winter break, according to the School Department.

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“We would like to retain as many of our students as possible, as well as avoid multiple breaks in the schedule,” Chang said in a memo this month to the School Committee.

If approved by the committee, the changes would be phased in starting in 2017. An earlier school year was tried for a few years decades ago but was abandoned, and response to the current idea is mixed.

While having breaks in both February and April is rare outside New England, it is ingrained in Massachusetts culture and can be difficult to change, said Paul Reville, who served as the state’s secretary of education under Governor Deval Patrick and is now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“People have their lives delicately balanced around the existing schedule, and often strongly resist changes like . . . the elimination of the February vacation,” Reville said. “This is challenging to do from a political standpoint.”

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Chang’s proposal would set the 2017 start date for grades 1 through 12 on Aug. 30, the Wednesday before Labor Day, and then start the 2018 school year on Aug. 22. That’s two weeks before Labor Day, the holiday that marks the unofficial end of summer.

His memo offers two calendars for the 2018-2019 school year: one that maintains the traditional February vacation week that begins on Presidents’ Day, and another that eliminates the week off and instead bumps the first day of school after the winter holiday break from Thursday, Jan. 3, to Monday, Jan. 7.The second option would lengthen the Christmas holiday vacation.

Parents have already begun taking sides on the proposal.

“Some are quite optimistic about at least hearing what the possibilities are, and some are just absolutely and unapologetically against it,” said Angelina Camacho, cochairwoman of Boston’s Citywide Parent Council, which has no official position on the proposal.

Some parents are opposed to an earlier end to vacation time with their children, or concerned about potential overlap with summer learning programs, she said, while those with teenagers worry that they will be less competitive for summer jobs than students who can work until Labor Day.

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Latoya Gayle, another Parent Council cochairwoman, questioned Chang’s reasoning.

Gayle said that many Boston students come from low-income families — about half are considered economically disadvantaged by the state.

“Most low-income people aren’t traveling internationally over winter break,” she said.

Parents might embrace moving up the start of school by a single week, Gayle said, but probably not two weeks.

“Two weeks, I think, is a bit excessive,” she said. “We only get so many nice days.”

She pointed out, too, that many Boston schools lack air conditioning, meaning they sometimes must suffer through sweltering days even with the traditional September return to classes.

Camacho said parents are open to considering calendar changes but called for Chang to provide more information about the proposal, and to listen closely to parent concerns.

“I think the universal question is, ‘When will we get full details?’ ” Camacho said. “After that, we can take a position.”

In a statement, the district promised to survey preferences and to “engage with families, staff, and stakeholders during this dialogue.”

Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said he is not aware of any district among the state’s more than 380 that does not have both February and April vacations.

But there has been a move in Massachusetts and elsewhere around the country in recent years toward earlier start dates for the school year, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has encouraged districts to begin before Labor Day since at least 2012.

“We’d love to see some districts try this out,” Wulfson said. “We think there are some good reasons to do it.”

State education officials advocate an earlier start because it gives districts more flexibility in adding days to the end of the year if students miss school because of snow. A change in Boston — the state’s capital and largest school district — could influence others.

“If they break from the mold, that would certainly be a strong signal to other districts in the area,” Wulfson said.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said he could not discuss the current proposal because it is part of ongoing contract negotiations between the union and the district.

He said an earlier start date has been part of such talks off and on for many years, going back at least to the 1980s, when the district adopted a pre-Labor Day start and then abandoned it.

“We actually did it for a three-year period,” Stutman said. “And then the School Department, during the very next go-round of negotiations, proposed undoing that provision because it didn’t work.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.