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Schools say goodbye to the long summer

More districts shift to year-round classes to boost performance
This third-grade class at Vanderburg Elementary School in Clark County Schools operates on a year-round calendar that’s divided into five tracks. .
This third-grade class at Vanderburg Elementary School in Clark County Schools operates on a year-round calendar that’s divided into five tracks. .

In Baldwin Community Schools, students had been returning from summer break having lost more than six weeks of learning—two weeks more than is typical. The district is located in the lowest-income county in rural Michigan, where 94 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Superintendent Stiles Simmons resolved the learning loss issue in a “balanced” calendar, which shortened the summer break by spreading school days more evenly over the year.

Spring break and other time-off periods have become academics time, during which students receive intensive reading and other instruction in the morning. Then, during the afternoon, school provides enrichment programming that includes community-led sessions on subjects ranging from conflict resolution to woodworking.

School leaders are increasingly adjusting their calendars, with more than 3,700 public schools operating year-round in 2011, according to a 2014 Congressional report. In addition, at least 30 states have schools operating on the alternative calendar.

“It’s a viable way to minimize the summer learning loss that occurs annually,” says David Hornak, executive director of the National Association of Year-Round Education, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. “The bulk of the research speaks to the fact that lower -income students do better on the balanced calendar. However, my research indicates that all kids benefit.”

In addition, the alternative calendar allows for regular and more frequent breaks—a benefit teachers notice. “It really creates these nice learning chunks, paired with these great breaks,” Hornak says.

Educators have sometimes likened a school year to running a marathon. And the balanced calendar offers more chances to rest and refuel—enabling a strong effort in the next leg of the race. “When (teachers) are in front of their children, they’re better able to engage kids because they’ve had the opportunity to recharge,” he says.

Building a strong case

Researchers found that average passing rates for students in the year-round school were higher than for pupils following a traditional calendar, according to the 2012 study, “Texas Elementary School Academic Achievement as a Function of School Calendar Type.” It analyzed the test results at 51 public elementary schools in the state in 2009 and 2010.

The most popular model is a “45-15,” in which schools hold nine weeks of classes (45 days) followed by three-week breaks (15 days). Other options include 60-20 and 45-10 schedules, as well as a multi-track calendar that alleviates overcrowding by staggering classes over different months so only four out of five students are on campus at any given time. The number of school days typically remain the same or at least similar to a traditional academic calendar.

“Even before the idea of the balanced calendar, I made a point to build relationships,” says Simmons of sharing his initial plans with state lawmakers, business leaders and other community members. “I knew I was going need their monetary support, and their voice and influence, to pull it off.”

Brace for resistance

When Albert Lea Area Schools Superintendent Michael Funk wanted to move all seven of his southern Minnesota schools to a year-round calendar in 2014, he proposed the “45-10” model wherein nine weeks of classes end with two-week breaks.

Facing vocal opposition, but unsure how widespread it was, the district of 3,300 students paid a survey firm $15,000 to poll the community. Most people, or 62 percent, supported the change, but critics dug in their heels. That fall, Albert Lea also hired a consultant—who specialized in working with the public in potentially volatile situations—to moderate three legally-required public forums to gather feedback. The sessions also allowed school board members and school administrators to explain the benefits of the idea to parents.

“Honestly, it split the community in half,” says Funk, recalling packed school board meetings where opponents verbally attacked him and accused him of being untrustworthy.

Almost 100 people attended the meeting where the board was expected to vote that November. But the board ultimately tabled it after most spoke against the switch. At the next meeting the board was tied. And when they met again in late December, the audience grew so unruly that people were screaming over the school board. No decision was made, and it sat until March. Funk modified the proposal—nixing the year-round approach, but proposing an early start for 2016-17, which was almost two years away at the time. Classes next fall will start two weeks early, in mid-August.

The schedule gives students an extra 10 school days before state and AP exams. They also can take first-semester final exams before winter break. In addition, four dedicated professional development days are scheduled in early January, before the second semester starts.

“The real piece is getting kids in August when they are ready to learn because anyone who teaches for a long time knows that the closer we get to June, the closer we get to the kids turning (their attention) off,” he says. “The more days of instruction earlier, the better”

Winning political support

In Michigan, the Baldwin district worked hard to get the needed support—reaching out to its state lawmakers, business owners and other community members to build relationships even before proposing a calendar switch. That included holding monthly dinners where the public could ask questions and learn about the district, as well as one-on-one and small group meetings with community leaders.

In particular, business leaders had some reservations. Because the district is located in a popular outdoor recreation area, ice cream shops, grocery stores and other businesses hire teenagers to keep up with increased summer tourist traffic.

But Simmons says the research and data he presented about the switch convinced the business community. And as part of his work with state lawmakers, Simmons testified at the state capitol in 2014 during a session in which legislators approved $2 million worth of grants to fund building improvements, such as air conditioning, to allow for summer classes.

But when Baldwin didn’t win one of those grants, lawmakers continued to work on the district’s behalf and found money “at the midnight hour” to create a funding stream through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a private-public partnership agency. Baldwin received a $750,000 grant, which paid for air conditioning and other building upgrades, and the new calendar started this school year.

Accommodate extreme growth

With an influx of new residents to Las Vegas and its surrounding communities over the last few decades, Clark County School District knows how to accommodate “extreme growth.” Three years ago, enrollment at some elementary schools began topping 125 percent of building capacity, prompting leaders to return to a year-round track calendar to help alleviate overcrowding on campus. The district had been on a year-round calendar about a decade ago, when enrollment also grew faster than new schools could be built.

The district divides the 12-month year for certain elementary schools into five tracks, and assigns grade-level classes to each track. Only four of the five tracks are in session during any one period, meaning only 80 percent of classes are in session at any time. Having 20 percent fewer students and teachers in buildings at any given time alleviates crowding in cafeterias, playgrounds and other common facilities.

Enrollment at Clark County’s Vanderburg Elementary School, with a capacity of 650, blossomed to 880 in 2014-15. Its tight-knit residential neighborhood southeast of Las Vegas is home to families of diverse socio-economic status, with some students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, and others living in multimillion- dollar homes.

Principal Cathy Maggiore says communication was key to winning community support for moving to a track calendar this school year.

Prior to implementation, school leaders spent weeks configuring the new schedule and sorting through parent requests—as from families who wanted siblings in middle and high schools to be one the same tracks. And administrators also scheduled special events, such as the fall and spring school festivals, so that the same tracks of students wouldn’t be out of school during both celebrations.

However, all students can participate in evening choir performances and other after-school gatherings, even if their track is not in session. Art, music and physical education teachers can work an extended year and schedule periodic days off or one-week vacations throughout the year. And some classrooms are used year-round, with teachers either “roving” between rooms or “rotating” among their grade levels.

The school uses ParentLink, a robo-call system, to notify parents about school announcements, since 20 percent of students are always on break and can’t take notes homes. In addition, the PTA runs a popular Facebook page that shares upcoming events, from music performances to “battle of the book” events. In addition, all staff and teacher-team meetings are recorded so teachers not in the building can review announcements and initiatives when their track resumes.

Clark County expects to phase the track calendar out at schools over time, thanks in part to state lawmakers approving a bond rollover that will pay for new construction and refurbishment of existing schools.

Until then, the track calendar enables the district to accommodate growth. But academic benefits exist as well, especially for at-risk students. “We’ve been able to prevent those summer learning lags,” says Mike Barton, Clark County’s chief student achievement officer.

And Simmons, Baldwin’s superintendent, also sees student performance improving. “It’s really what’s best for students,” he says. “It’s hard for anyone to argue against that.”

Mackenzie Ryan is a freelance writer based in Iowa.

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