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Is Year-Round Schooling on Track?

Summer learning loss and overcrowding drive alternative schedules.
children holding hands
Turner Creek Road Elementary School students in the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System attend school during summer months.

For administrators, teachers, students and their families in some districts, summer isn't what it used to be. Trying to stem a "summer slide" of learning loss by students and also to avoid having to build more schools to cope with overcrowding, districts are operating on year-round schedules that shorten the traditional summer vacation while adding breaks through the year, which traditionally averages 180 days of instruction, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But the results appear to be mixed, and some districts are backtracking on their strategies. More than 2 million students in 3,000 schools in 46 states attended school year-round in 2006-2007, the latest data available, according to Charles Ballinger, executive director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round Education (NAYRE), an advocacy group. He doesn't know how many districts are involved but believes the numbers are "still about right" because "when we hear about schools leaving year-round, we hear of an equal number coming on. It's an educated guess, but we think we're holding our own."

Year-round education, which Ballinger defines as having no more than eight weeks of vacation at one time, compared to up to three months that some stakeholders are used to, "takes a beating whenever there's a downturn in the economy," due to the increased costs for staff and personnel during those times when schools are typically closed for summer, he says. "If a district is piloting it in some schools and the district is strapped for money, the idea gets scrapped. We've been hit hard by that, but when the economy turns around, we should see more schools going year-round."

Here are the three different kinds of year-round education:

Single Track: The most popular year-round format, adopted by 90 percent of schools that have gone year-round. There are no additional days, but these schools have shorter breaks to try to prevent learning loss. "It doesn't cost any more or less" than a traditional schedule, Ballinger says. "All you do is reorganize the school year, with maybe a little more air-conditioning in the summer, but that's offset by a little less heating in the winter. It's pretty much a wash, financially."

Multitrack: Divides the student body into groups, so one group will be on vacation while other groups go to school. All multitrack pupils have the same holidays as those on a traditional calendar. It saves the district money by not having to build more schools for more students.

Students in Track E in the Chicago Public Schools revs up to start school in early August last year.

Extended Year: Adds 15 to 20 days a year. This costs more money, as staff members need to work more.

President Barack Obama has called for longer school years to help American students compete with students around the globe, some of whom attend school up to 25 or 30 percent longer than American students, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2008 when it adopted year-round schooling. With this boost from Obama and Duncan, Ballinger is encouraged that the concept will catch on more widely among district leaders.

The American Federation of Teachers has no formal position on year-round schooling. The National Education Association's position, updated in 2008, calls for its local affiliates to participate in the design, implementation, evaluation and continuation of year-round school programs as well as summer school, extended school days and years, and other types of alternative calendars. Ballinger says that teachers unions have not been a problem for year-round schooling. "They seem to use it as a bargaining chip," he explains, "and if districts and unions can come to quick agreement on contracts, it doesn't seem to be an issue."

Along with overcrowding in some schools, educators agree that the "summer slide" is the key driver of year-round schooling. Most students lose about two months of achievement in math skills over the summer, and students from low-income families also lose more than two months in reading achievement while their middle-class peers make slight gains, according to the National Summer Learning Association. "Typically, low-income and minority children don't have the same kind of access to summer programming as other children do," says Isabel Owen, education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Matthew Boulay, interim CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, also cites research that shows an increase in childhood obesity over the summer "because children are substituting junk food for the school lunches they used to get."

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, says that children from families with middle or higher-level incomes "read, go to summer camps and on trips with their families, and show up at school in September about where they left off in June." By contrast, he adds, children from lower-income families "generally are not doing anything during the summer that has them reading or otherwise productively engaged, so they show up in September with substantial drop-offs."

The summer slide and even nutrition concerns for children of lower-income families are driving West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple, who stepped into the position in March, to persuade more schools in her state to adopt a year-round calendar. She served as superintendent of the Kanawha County (W.Va.) Schools in the 1990s when three elementary schools made the transition to year-round schedules. Hess cautions, however, that year-round schooling is not by itself the answer to avoiding learning losses. "If you don't use the time well, but simply take boring, ineffectual schools and run them longer,it's unclear to me why this would be good for anybody," he asserts.

Last summer, students outside Bardstown Elementary School, serving grades 3-5, in the Bardstown (Ky.) City Schools, make bubbles thanks to an activity made possible by a visiting ?Bubble Truck.?

Little Proof

Administrators in some districts that have adopted year-round schedules add that although anecdotal observations from teachers and parents prove that it works, they have no data showing it makes a difference in students' achievement. "We are not seeing our year-round schools outperforming those on traditional calendars," declares Michael Evans, chief communications officer in the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System (WCPSS).

Brent Holsclaw, superintendent of the Bardstown (Ky.) City Schools, says the district has seen "some positive trends" in student grades, attendance and discipline referrals since it implemented its year-round calendar in 1995-1996, but he admits, "We can't scientifically attribute them only to year-round education. There's little proof that it has increased test scores or anything else that is measurable." Then again, he says, "we can't say with certainty that they are not a result of that, either."

Similarly, Miriam D. Hughey-Guy, principal of Barcroft Elementary School in the Arlington (Va.) Public Schools, says "I can't say that having a modified school calendar is the sole reason we are making gains on state tests [starting in third grade in reading and math]. We constantly adjust our instructional programs and how we deliver them, so it's a combination of those." Barcroft has operated year-round since 2003 and is the district's only school on a year-round schedule.

In 39 selected schools from 2004 through 2008, the Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools added 10 days to the school year, as well as one hour to the school day as part of a comprehensive $100 million school reform program, "School Improvement Zone," that the district designed to bolster the performance of students. "It didn't work," according to Marta Perez, vice chair of the district's board of education.

The district ended the program in 2008, and a final report that it issued in May 2009 concludes that the program "cannot be considered to have had a positive impact" on the students. It cites "excessive absences" by students and reports by principals and teachers that "proficient students felt stigmatized by the mandatory additional time, which was viewed as punishment rather than enforcement." The evaluation document also cites "reports of fatigue and burn out by administrators and teachers." Perez had concerns about the program even before it began, including its cost, which was due largely to staffing requirements.

Ballinger agrees that an extended school year incurs higher personnel expenses, and he explains that this is why the format is "in kind of a holding period right now, given the rough economic patch we're going through."

Elementary students in the Bardstown (Ky.) City Schools, which have a modified school calendar, paint birdhouses in the Animal Adventures class during last fall?s intersession, in which students who need remediation receive help.

Track Systems

Some districts have adopted year-round schooling for reasons other than boosting academic achievement. In Wake County, says Evans, "we have not measured it as an academic tool. We have used it as a capacity governance model. You get more students into a school and have to build fewer schools. It's a function of trying to keep up with growth."

His district and others have done that through multitracking, a scheduling format that divides the student body into four groups or "tracks," with one group on break while the others are in school. The schedule is "45/15," with students in school for 45 days, then off for 15. It begins in early July for three tracks, while the fourth begins 15 days later when one of the other tracks is on break.

In Wake County, with 163 schools altogether, 40 elementary schools and nine middle schools have operated on multitrack schedules since in the early 1990s, with most of the others remaining on a traditional calendar, says Evans. "It was done initially so we wouldn't have to build as many schools. We were net-growing 7,000 kids a year in 2003-2004. It was astronomical, and we couldn't build schools fast enough or afford to pass bonds," Evans explains.

By operating schools on a multitrack system, WCPSS can accommodate up to 33 percent more pupils in a building, and for every three multitrack, year-round schools, one less school has to be built and equipped, he explains. Teachers are on the same schedules as their students, taking time off when the students are on breaks.

Debbe Geiger, mother of one child who has been in a multitrack year-round WCPSS elementary school and two others in middle and high schools on traditional calendars, says that "all in all, it's been a very positive experience." Employed fulltime, Geiger says of her family, "We don't go on vacation all the time, so I liked that my little one was safe in school and I didn't have to take time off for her." Still, she adds, "it's inconvenient to have three kids on different schedules [and] no fun to have kids not off at the same time." All her children will be on the same schedule in 2011-2012 when her youngest starts in a traditional middle school.

In May, WCPSS Superintendent Anthony J. Tata recommended to the board of education, and it agreed, to move five of the multitrack elementary schools to a single track because they now are underenrolled. The change is an "operational efficiency" that the district will reassess in two years, Evans says. "Once the economy rebounds, we anticipate growth to start accelerating again, and then we can start adding back the tracks," he says.

Similarly, the Chicago Public Schools ended multitracking in June. The seven schools that were on a multitrack schedule will be on a single track when the 2011-2012 school year begins. Jacqueline D. Anderson, who works in the CEO's office, says that the district put the schools on multitrack initially "because of overcrowding and to avoid busing students out of their neighborhoods," but that, because of new construction and charter schools, the schools are no longer overcrowded.

Making Up for Lost Time

The Bardstown schools in Kentucky have used a year-round schedule since 1995- 1996. "What drew the district to it was that kids were making up work in summer school that they had missed as far back as the previous September," says Holsclaw, who has been superintendent since 2005. "We figured it would make more sense to set up intersessions in the schools at the end of each quarter, on scheduled breaks, and catch students who were falling behind before they moved on."

He adds that up to two-thirds of Bardstown's students are considered at-risk, such as in a low socioeconomic status that qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunches, and that under the old schedule, district officials "found they were experiencing the summer slide both academically and behaviorally."

Bardstown's 2011-2012 school year will begin August 3, with a two-week break starting October 3 that includes an intersession during the first week. The two-week end-of-year holiday period that begins December 19 includes another one-week intersession for remediation starting the day after Christmas. A two-week spring break starting April 2 includes an intersession during the first week, and the summer intersession takes places June 5-8. Then the academic year is over for about eight weeks. With that break, the Bardstown schedule is not strictly-year round. Holsclaw and administrators in other districts with similar schedules call it a "modified" calendar.

Students in After School Matters, which is a private program, perform cheers at the Chicago Public Schools? back to school rally last summer for Track E.

In Bardstown, Holsclaw says, "it took some real doing to get the community to accept it." Holsclaw credits his predecessor, Robert Smotherman, for a carefully structured campaign in which he gave local citizens opportunities to speak during three months of hearings and meetings before the new arrangement was implemented. The district addressed one issue that was raised by creating a day-care program during the two-week breaks for children of working parents.

Holsclaw says it costs Bardstown about $5,000 annually to pay bus drivers to transport students during the intersessions and buy fuel for the buses. Students are invited to participate in remediation for a full week from a teacher recommendation, but it is not mandatory. To force them into remediation is "a real drag," Holsclaw says. "We have to pull kids in."

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer to District Administration.