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Calendar conundrum

SOLON– For one Solon family, the committee responsible for setting Solon’s academic schedule has graced them with a difficult decision.
Though Lisa and Jeff Kaefring were forced to pick between attending the May 20 graduations of their son Adam– honors student and speaker for Mount Mercy University’s 2012 commencement exercises– and their daughter Hillary, who will walk across the stage in Solon the same day, Lisa says she still feels blessed.
“I am very proud of all my children, and how hard they have worked and what they’ve accomplished,” she said. “It’s a good kind of problem to have.”
Although when she first learned of the calendar conflict she wasn’t feeling quite as magnanimous.
“When I first looked at the school calendar and saw graduation was the 20th of May, I was kind of shocked. I wondered if it was legitimate (since graduation has traditionally been held on Memorial Day weekend). And I knew Mount Mercy’s was the 20th because it’s always the weekend before.”
After confirming that both Solon High School and Mount Mercy would be holding their graduations on the same day, Lisa visited with Superintendent Sam Miller to see if there were accommodations that could be made.
“I didn’t want to move the date,” she said, “but I thought if Solon could just move the time to 3 o’clock, it would give us some time to travel between ceremonies. But he got back to me, and basically, it is when it is.”
Historically, Kaefring said, Memorial Day weekend has always been Solon’s graduation weekend, even as far back as her own graduation in 1978. It changed to the third weekend in May for a handful of years when Bob Lesan took over as Solon High School’s principal, but reverted back to Memorial Day weekend for the last three or four years after Solon’s calendar committee circulated a survey to the wider Solon community asking for input.
The calendar committee, comprised of two school administrators, six teachers, six parents, five students, three representatives from the community and one school board member, is in charge of Solon’s academic calendar and sets dates for the school year based on several criteria: the calendar must contain 180 days of student instruction; teachers need days for professional development; and parent-teacher conferences must be set. For Solon and many area districts, winter and spring breaks are aligned with the University of Iowa’s schedule.
Solon High School Principal Nathan Wear said that in most Iowa school districts, important dates like graduation, breaks, and the first day of school are simply copied by administrators and renewed by school boards annually. Solon’s calendar committee has been charged with setting a three-year schedule (for academic years 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16) by January 2013.
This year’s committee was appointed and approved in February, and will use information from the district’s School Improvement Advisory Committee, a stakeholder survey, calendar examples, community information and other data to help formulate its suggested calendars from April until November. The committee will report to the school board in November, and the board will be asked to approve the suggested calendars for the next three years in December.
Wear is the chair of the committee and said two things were being discussed in detail before making a recommendation to the board.
One is finding a consistent graduation date and locking it in through 2016.
The other is to find a way to finish the first semester before winter break so students wouldn’t have to come back after a break and take final exams.
“It’s a process that most schools don’t invest in because they just do the same thing every year,” he said.
Wear said the Solon team would look at innovative calendars from other districts and research the effects of extended breaks like the traditional three months in the summer, to see if the time away from instruction has any effect on student learning. Wear said he had no preconceived ideas about the final decision, other than to “have the committee do what’s best for the kids.”
And, understandably, Wear is referring to the majority of the student body. He noted that the previous calendar committee, with former principal Lesan, set the 2012 graduation date clear back in 2010.
“We can’t change our date just like (the college) can’t change theirs,” said Wear.
Nor would Kaefrings want them to. Lisa said she just hopes this and future calendar committees will set a graduation weekend and keep it consistent, so families can plan accordingly. Or, at least, prepare for a conflict of this nature.
Meanwhile, her children have been very understanding of the dilemma of having two important events in two different locations at nearly the same time.
“My kids are extremely supportive of each other, and they really understand how tortured I am that I can’t be in both places,” Lisa said. Older sister Whitney has agreed to videotape Adam’s commencement speech while Lisa and Jeff travel quickly from Cedar Rapids to Solon to join Hillary’s ceremony. “I thought about contacting someone for a helicopter to fly us in,” she joked. “Wouldn’t that be an entrance?”
It was something a little more serious that Lisa said brought her to a feeling of peace about her predicament. On April 24, the community said goodbye to Solon graduate Brett Smith, who lost his life to leukemia at just 19 years of age. It was during his memorial service that Lisa, whose family has long-standing ties with the Smith family, was overwhelmed by the realization that having two children graduating on the same day was not something that should be viewed as negative.
“This is something in my life that is a blessing and a joy,” Lisa said. “This is not something I’ve thought about lightly, and it’s going to work out just fine.”