Compressed Calendar Project: An Update
by Mary Pierce, Instructor Communication Studies Department, email@example.com (707) 778-3944
A few months ago, just after the academic calendar was approved for Fall 2011, a colleague called me with a certain amount of frustration in his voice: "I thought we voted for a compressed calendar. Why are we facing a fall semester that ends December 23?" He was referring to the AFA/Academic Senate-sponsored District-wide survey everyone had a chance to complete last spring that showed about two-thirds of respondents in every employee group at SRJC in favor of moving to an alternate academic calendar. The survey was a significant tool for exploring this possible change for SRJC, but any changes to the academic calendar must be negotiated, and that's the next step for this project.
Visit to Ohlone Community College
If you have been following this project, you know that AFA and the Academic Senate co-sponsored a task force starting Fall 2009 to gather research about alternate calendars and evaluate what such a change would mean for SRJC. Last year we found most of the major studies and literature about alternate calendars and linked them to Task Force web pages (click here for the Compressed Calendar Task Force Web site); met with departments and shared-governance groups to discuss potential benefits and drawbacks of compressing the calendar; and conducted two major surveys to gather data from faculty, staff, management, and students. This fall, we decided the next step was to visit a community college with an alternate calendar in place.
With guidance from members of our administration and our contacts at the Chancellor's Office, we selected Ohlone Community College in Fremont for our field trip. OCC compressed from 18-week semesters to 16-week semesters in 2006. We figured this change was recent enough that our Ohlone colleagues would have some interesting stories and helpful advice based on hindsight. Jim Wright, OCC Vice President of Academic Affairs, helped us set up a day of interviews and meetings with a variety of administrators, staff, and faculty. On Friday, November 19, six members of the Compressed Calendar Task Force piled into a JC van and headed into morning traffic. Attendees included Cheryl Dunn, College Skills/Tutorial; Robin Fautley, Life Sciences; Audrey Spall, Counseling; Eric Thompson, Humanities and Modern & Classical Languages; Diane Traversi, Director of Admissions & Records; and myself. We were glad to have this opportunity to gather information first hand.
We arrived at the beautiful, recently expanded OCC campus in Fremont and enjoyed a gracious welcome by Vice President Wright and Ron Travenick, OCC Vice President of Student Services, who coordinated much of the effort to develop new schedules. The decision to shorten semester length followed a vote by the Academic Senate in which faculty were overwhelmingly in favor of the change. OCC Administration decided on an aggressive implementation; instead of taking one to two years to process the change, as many community colleges have done, they worked closely with the Chancellor's Office to develop and seek approval for an acceptable new schedule that had students signing up for shorter classes within the year. It took the two individuals in the scheduling office five weeks of uninterrupted work to change each class, making necessary adjustments to protect apportionment levels and increase instructional minutes to fit the shortened semester. Then the new class schedule was circulated among the division deans and department chairs to make additional adjustments for individual instructor preferences, facility limitations, and best instructional practices.
As we settled into discussion, Wright said that changing the semesters was "a hard process but it's worth it." They stressed that the mission at OCC is improving access, innovation, and educational quality, and they let this overarching philosophy drive decisions. According to Wright, the new semester lengths at OCC are "not a scheduling model, but a teaching and learning model." OCC has a lot of learning communities, and the new schedule has helped facilitate these. Many faculty report better student retention, though these results are still anecdotal. Many staff members say they are better prepared to support students during the semester because they have more time to complete projects between semesters. For example, lab techs enjoy more time to get the labs stocked and ready before classes begin. Staff members claim the new schedule has been a stress reducer. Students also like the change and find it more convenient and cost-effective to be on campus two to three days per week instead of four to five.
What changed at Ohlone Community College? What stayed the same?
Just as SRJC has identified the importance of preserving instructional time in the classroom if semester length is shortened, OCC's new schedule maximizes instructional time for every class. Class meetings were lengthened by about 20 minutes each, and passing time between classes remained the same. Here are a few additional decisions OCC made:
• OCC did not add a winter intersession, and no changes were made to the summer session. Most summer classes are six weeks.
• Instead of winter intersession, they allow a few classes to start early and utilize the weeks of winter break. These classes are considered part of the spring semester to simplify the process for Admissions and Records.
• OCC used to have many late-start classes that were already being taught on a 16-week template; these were left as 16-week classes and folded into OCC's new calendar.
• Last date to add a class moved up by one week, resulting in stabilized enrollments earlier in the term. This turned out to be an unexpected bonus for faculty.
• OCC's calendar includes four professional development flex days per year. We asked about the impact of shortening semesters on shared governance, and Jim Wright noted that OCC did not experience any significant changes. To encourage participation in shared-governance activities like department meetings and committee retreats, OCC administration encourages faculty to attend "college week" each semester before classes begin. Events are not obligatory, but the College makes the effort to keep workshops and meetings lively and meaningful. Many faculty participate and enjoy this unofficial, casual approach to preparing for the semester.
Challenges for Lab Classes
During our morning meeting, Vice President Ron Travenick noted that "Most of the concerns around the impact of alternate schedules came from lab faculty," and Jim Wright agreed. Later, during our afternoon sessions, we learned that some OCC lab science faculty were frustrated and unhappy with the new schedule, saying their labs were harder for students and that 16 weeks resulted in poorer retention. At SRJC, some faculty who teach labs have expressed concerns about having to drop labs to accommodate shorter semesters, and the Task Force has discussed these issues at length. We need to examine these issues carefully and identify the best possible scheduling model for our instructional programs.
Last fall semester, AFA worked with the District to draft and sign a memorandum of understanding that moves this entire project to the negotiating table. Therefore, the AFA/Academic Senate Compressed Calendar Task Force, after 1½ years of research and discussion, concluded its work in December 2010. A new group has formed in its place: the Compressed Calendar Negotiating Task Force. STEM dean Kimberly Messina and I are co-chairs for this new group, which also includes Karen Frindell Teuscher, Chemistry; Ann Herbst, Mathematics; Warren Ruud, Mathematics; Audrey Spall, Counseling; Kris Abrahamson, Dean III, Liberal Arts & Sciences; Abe Farkas, Dean III, Curriculum & Educational Support Services; Greg Granderson, Dean II, Student Services/Petaluma; and Diane Traversi, Director, Admissions & Records. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about the work completed by the Compressed Calendar Task Force. If you have questions about what's next, or the possible implementation of an alternate calendar at SRJC, contact AFA or members of the Executive Council.