Alternative Calendars: An Update

Educational Policies Committee
Educational Policies Committee

QQuarter system? Condensed calendars for a twelve-week semester? A fifteen week semester? The Fall Plenary session of the Academic Senate for the California Community Colleges offered a chance for faculty considering such changes to review the implementation efforts of colleges who have already moved to an alternative calendar. This article reports on the participants' observations as part of the larger, ongoing discussion that must take place during local senate deliberations.

De Anza College is unusual among California community colleges in that it instituted a quarter system 30 years ago. The shift from a standard semester system to the quarter approach immediately resulted in a large increase in enrollment. De Anza enjoys the advantage of beginning its academic year about a month later than surrounding institutions, drawing students who, for whatever reasons, found it difficult or impossible to enroll in classes beginning earlier. De Anza's quarter system provides exceptional scheduling flexibility as fall enrollment patterns can be used to adjust the spring quarter class schedule: the intervening winter quarter permits the use of fall enrollments to determine and modify as necessary the spring schedule.

Santa Monica City College has had an alternative semester in place for a decade. Their studies of retention rates and grade point averages indicate that both have risen modestly under this system. Three colleges of the Los Angeles Community College District (Pierce, Southwest and Los Angeles Valley) have just launched 15-week calendars this fall; other colleges in the district are taking additional time to plan and prepare their own calendar modifications, since both the enabling regulations and district policy do not require that all colleges in a multi-college district adopt the same academic calendar.

Changing the starting and ending dates for an academic calendar also necessitates considerations beyond purely academic ones. Panel participants identified several groups of concerns: integrity of the academic program, contractual issues, institutional support and infrastructure, and most importantly, student needs. Given the complexity of these issues, participants cautioned that colleges attempting to initiate an alternative calendar should adopt a time frame of about two years in which to prepare for and implement the change. Such lead time is necessary to build college consensus while examining genuine concerns of faculty and staff, to identify the preferred calendar formation, to negotiate new calendars and working conditions, to plan implementation phases and prepare the infrastructure needed to support a calendar with less "down time."

Academic Integrity
Dr. Barrie Logan, President of Los Angeles Pierce College's academic senate, stressed that calendar reform should not simply be an accounting gimmick to generate greater apportionment funding. Some faculty across the state refer to a "greed factor" that seems partially to be driving administrative interest in shorter semesters, especially in light of ongoing inadequate funding; they feel that faculty are being dragged in the direction of shorter calendars, regardless of their concerns or the academic merits of those calendars. During discussions about the feasibility of calendar reform, faculty must raise such questions and must ensure that changes in calendar offer improved academic offerings to students and provide a coherent program that will genuinely serve their educational pursuits.

Pierce's six-week winter intersession is currently as popular as its six-week summer session. Not every class, however, is appropriate for these sessions. For example, science faculty suggest that their classes with labs are not suited for abbreviated sessions; such classes are best accommodated during the regular session. Yet, most colleges offering summer sessions have long since identified such exceptions and have sufficient evidence to plan for offerings during the new intersessions.

Instructional improvement appears to be a distinct advantage of making any calendar change. Participants agreed that calendar changes demand some rethinking of courses and modes of educational delivery. Alternative calendar discussions can break old habits of thinking and old ways of conducting classroom instruction.

Contractual Issues
Changes in the calendar require changes in the working conditions-and perhaps wages and benefits-of faculty and staff. As a result, a number of issues likely will need to be negotiated prior to implementing any significant calendar change. For example, while STRS now recognizes non-regular sessions (e.g., intersessions and summer sessions) for purposes of retirement contributions, some district contracts do not presently allow for teaching during these sessions to count toward annual load.

If implemented correctly, changes in the calendar should have no impact on part-time instructors as they may still teach the same number of hours for the same compensation. In fact, variable calendars may permit parttime faculty to teach at other institutions beyond what is presently feasible. The concern, however, has to be that part-time faculty and other faculty groups are neither exploited nor further segregated from the larger contingent of full-time academic faculty.

Contractual issues are most likely to arise for library and counseling faculty. Year-round sessions demand year-round student access to counseling and library services. Accommodating those demands within existing contracts may be impossible or will require exceptionally creative scheduling.

Other significant contractual matters arise for classified staff whose professional and pragmatic support is essential for any calendar changes. Staff in admissions and records, facilities maintenance, publications, and computer technology appear to be heavily impacted by changes that create new demands with reduced time in which to address them.

Local academic senates should work closely with their exclusive bargaining agents in assuring that both the contractual and academic aspects of these issues are addressed in a coherent fashion. Unions and academic senates can work together to assure that contractual arrangements are predicated upon and support sound educational practices.

Institutional Support and Infra- Infrastructure structure
One drawback of a year-round system is that the college is "always starting," and that means that registration is virtually continuous, placing enormous demands on related services. In addition to library and counseling services just mentioned, staff in matriculation, registration, financial aid, and student activities are taxed to assimilate these new enrollees. While online services offer some apparent relief, students continue to require individual, face-to-face services.

Colleges, particularly those with space limitations, will need the cooperation of all academic programs that must share reduced facilities. While alternative calendars will permit a college to offer more courses over the course of a year, in any given session, fewer courses will probably be offered than in an 18-week configuration; this occurs when longer class sessions reduce the number of available hours any classroom is available during the day.

Schedules for routine repairs or replacements need to be considered for classrooms or equipment now in use year-round. Even something as simple as geographical climate for colleges relying heavily on heating or airconditioning may bear on their fiscal or capital planning.

Earlier publications by the Academic Senate, including Alternative Calendars: Recommendations and a Progress Report [Fall 2000], address additional areas requiring institutional support. This publication is available on the Academic Senate's website.

Student Needs
In any shortened semester, the law requires that the "teaching time," the total time teachers spend with students, remains uniform regardless of the configuration of the classroom delivery. Thus, students do not "lose" time under a compressed calendar; they simply complete the same work within a shortened timeframe and perhaps under modified modes of delivery.

Some faculty have raised concerns, however, about the processing time students need for some subjects, particularly remedial courses. These faculty argue that the longer calendar already permits a college to offer shorter sessions within that framework while protecting longer semesters for students who need additional time. For example, Los Angeles Harbor interweaves 14-week classes within the standard calendar, Moorpark inserts 12-week classes, and many colleges offer 8-week classes. In all cases, the shortened classes meet for longer periods of time at each meeting so that the faculty/student contact time remains the same as in the classes scheduled for a full term. Often, the 12- or 14-week classes are late-starting classes that capture students unable to enroll in the longer, traditional term in August or January, or students who seek a fresh start after an unsuccessful beginning in the full-term section. In both instances, students are served who might otherwise have to wait to enroll for a subsequent semester.

Other faculty remind us that remediation has been fully integrated into the programs of colleges with alternative calendars with no apparent adverse impact. In fact, De Anza's comparison of the quarter system with the semester systems produced a number of findings. Students who have had the opportunity to experience both systems seem to prefer the quarter system. This preference seems to come in part from the students' ability in a quarter system to rectify in the third quarter anything that went wrong in the previous quarters, thereby remaining on track for completion or graduation.

Santa Monica has found that studentsincluding all groups of students-do better overall in shorter term classes and perform at the same level in a second course in a sequenced series of courses. One possible explanation for this discernable improvement is that students are less likely to experience outside interferences that disrupt their courses of study, simply because the classes occur within a shorter period of time. [For more information about this initial study, see the appendices to the Academic Senate publication noted above.]

Obviously, student learning must remain faculty's primary concern in making a determination about the academic calendar. Yet other advantages emerge: retention in intersessions remains high, teaching innovations multiply. Further, compressed schedules of any length, particularly of quarter system, require students' presence on campus for longer periods each day and thus may encourage greater student awareness of campus activities, contributing to a more lively and rewarding campus life and atmosphere.

On the other hand, the lengthened class times per day associated with compressed calendar approaches may have a negative impact on some working students juggling academic and work schedules. Meeting this dilemma requires creative, strategic scheduling of general education classes. Availability of local childcare may also be an issue for some students as alternative calendars may affect the dates and hours that childcare is needed. Regardless of the calendar adopted by a college, alternative or other, the decision calls for further faculty research to identify, confirm, or rebut assertions about that calendar plan and the benefits to students, to their teaching, to retention or college enrollments. Such comparative research might easily be done on an inter- or intra-district basis, pairing colleges whose demographics and curricular offerings are similar. The Educational Policies Committee of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges is eager to know how your faculty contends with these challenges over the next few years, for these are important discussions and decisions, calling upon faculty vigilance and inviting faculty enthusiasm.