There is a stark change in the emotional environment of a school when you take charge of the clock. Two years ago, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Rock Island-Milan (Ill.) School District #41 moved to a year-round calendar. On a recent Friday, Principal Rick Loy remarks, "I haven't had one student sent to the office all week. And I know why. We've just had two weeks off, everyone is refreshed, remotivated and their fire has been rekindled." Instead of hearing teachers and students asking when the next vacation is, Loy says they're just excited to be back.
"Having three months off in the summer isn't appropriate anymore, especially when you consider children who come to school who are already behind ... because of their home environment or [undeveloped] language skills," says Darryl Taylor, principal of Grant Elementary School. "You know these children are going to have serious problems achieving, and the learning gap widens as they get older." With a year-round calendar, he says, "The kids feel less ground down, and the teachers feel more effective and energized."
Located in northwestern Illinois on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, Rock Island has switched all of its schools to a year-round calendar. With the traditional school calendar of nine months in session and three months off, Log and Taylor note that students and teachers were showing significant signs of stress and fatigue by November; absenteeism and student discipline were more prevalent.
But with a year-round schedule, it's different. "We have many students who struggle to achieve academic success in school," says Superintendent David Markward. "We need to take advantage of every opportunity that we think is logical for them to be successful." A modified calendar, he says, has provided "educators [with] a time to step back-a time for teachers to make mid-course corrections before learning problems become achievement gaps."
Two of Rock Island's elementary schools served as alternative calendar pilot sites, Horace Mann in 1991 and Grant Intensive Basic in 1994. Horace Mann became a "choice" school, where students apply to attend and parents sign a contract to be supportive and active partners in their child's education. The school implemented multiage classrooms, with teachers and students remaining together for three years. Grant Intensive piloted an extended calendar with 10 additional school days per year. Both schools have breaks for teachers and students at significant times.
By 1999, the Board of Education began examining the pilots to decide whether they provided a better educational system and whether year-round calendars would make sense for the rest of the district, Markward says. Through informational meetings, he and the board explained to the individual school communities that it was up to each of them to decide about their calendar. Nationally, about 3,225 schools operate on a year-round schedule, according to the National Association of Year-Round Education.
Moving Forward with Change
The public's input was sought next. A district-wide committee created and distributed an informational survey, which sought input from parents, students, teachers and more than 35 local businesses.
Results were mailed directly to Augustana College, where they were tabulated for a report. Markward remembers those anxious moments when a professor came to see him with the results. "I held my breath because I had no idea ... the results would show that an overwhelming majority of the community would agree to move forward with a calendar change."
The next step was to configure the right calendar. So the board held a series of community meetings. The decision: a modified calendar of nine weeks in session then two weeks off for each of the four quarters, culminating in an eight-week summer.
Markward says the community felt the schedule offered "the best of both worlds. ... You can't change the history of our country. We know that summer is a pretty important thing. Oh, we can say that, gosh we should think educationally about the use of summer time. But in the real world, there just are things that our society is built around and summer is pretty important in the scheme of things."
Three months later, the Board of Education gave Markward the okay to begin the 2001-2002 school year with a modified calendar for a five-year trial period with a yearly evaluation. Administrators at Horace Mann and Grant requested that they be allowed to keep their current calendars, as per their pilot status, an exception the board granted.
Catalyst for Reform
Without other changes, the act of altering a school's calendar proves insignificant. Rock Island's year-round calendar adoption became a catalyst for implementing significant instructional changes. What takes place in the classroom is driven by the individual teacher's abilities, and new professional development opportunities have helped them become better teachers.
Markward says, "I just returned from the Francis Willard Elementary School where the poverty rate is 90 percent, but the student scores on the district achievement tests and state assessments are among the highest in the district. We think that happens because the teachers and administration work incredibly hard together." Also important to the district are creative cohesive principal-teacher relationships with a focus on student achievement.
Administrators in Rock Island see exceptional teaching as interactive- teachers engaging students actively in their learning. Quality teachers lead students to information by letting them discover answers, by helping them to develop critical thinking skills and to become problem solvers. Classroom teachers serve as resource providers and guides to student learning.
The district gives schools autonomy in planning professional development activities. At Horace Mann school, for example, one less teacher on staff provides money for in-depth professional development and classroom materials, says Principal Tom Berg.
Loy says the modified school calendar's intercessions are critical for professional development time. "You can't provide the professional development that is at the heart of getting good student achievement results unless teachers have quality, sustained professional development that is not done on top of their teaching load.
"After awhile, the quality ... becomes diluted or doesn't have the desired impact on the classroom because the teacher rushed back to pick up where they left off," he adds.
Instead, at Thomas Jefferson, teachers attend professional development sessions during a day or two during each of the two- or three-week breaks, as well as a day or two over the longer summer break and at a few times throughout the school year. With this schedule, teachers have time for reflection, Loy says.
Taylor explains that Rock Island began its quest for better use of time when a community member brought an important document to the attention of the Board of Education. It was a 1994 National Education Commission report, "Prisoners of Time," which says learning becomes liberated when time is unlocked, or made an adjustable resource. Rock Island's teachers and students are more energized and actively engaged in classes because the district found a way to unlock the clock.
"Modified calendars are not just beneficial for children who are at-risk or children of poverty," says Taylor. "This is an approach to help all students because it gives everyone an opportunity to excel and to go beyond. We're looking for opportunities for all kids to do better."
Joe Ann Barton, firstname.lastname@example.org, a former Rock Island elementary principal, recently retired from her position as director of curriculum and instruction/assistant superintendent at Scotia-Glenville (N.Y.) Schools.