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Year-Round School in Richmond?

The Ins and Outs for Students, Teachers, and Families

With Washington debating how best to create jobs and inject some much needed adrenaline into the lackluster economy, schools and teachers have moved to the center of the discussion. “Efforts to provide a high-quality education to every child are key to overcoming this crisis and ensuring competitiveness in an increasingly global economy,” argues National PTA President Betsy Landers. Could year-round school be a possible solution?

summer_programsTypically, year-round school is defined as a reorganization of the calendar, not an extension of the required 180 days; however, both situations are currently being considered here in Virginia. In February, the Virginia House of Delegates unanimously agreed to fund a two-year study on the efficiency of year-round schools both nationally and internationally. Whereas most industrialized nations offer no more than seven consecutive weeks of vacation, most American students still enjoy almost three months off in the summer. But such extended breaks might not be the case for long.

The primary argument for year-round education is that students tend to forget what they’ve learned during the summer, and shorter vacations might increase retention rates. Ryan Stein, a 2011 Virginia Lottery Super Teacher award winner, teaches social studies and language arts to fourth graders in Henrico County. He says, “I spend a lot of time every September re-teaching information students should already know…shorter summer breaks and an extended school year would mean more time for creative projects students enjoy.”

Some other reasons for year-round school include the inefficient use of school buildings during summer break, student boredom during traditional summer months, and working in more time for rejuvenation during a long school year. Stein also cites the important role schools now play in ensuring student health. “It [school] provides a lot of children with breakfast and lunch… and when you consider the increase in childhood obesity, the physical fitness students get through recess, PE, and running clubs becomes that much more important.”

However, for most decision makers, none of these reasons seem to rank as high as increasing retention of material. The problem is there is no definitive research that supports the theory that students forget what they’ve learned over the summer. In fact, research from the University of Baltimore actually indicates the opposite.

During the summer break, schoolchildren in Baltimore’s top-third economic segment picked up an average of 46.6 points on the reading test. The less-privileged middle two-thirds gained only about 4.5 points on average, while the children in the bottom third lost 1.9 points. These statistics are part of the reason this issue is so hotly debated.

For those children whose parents choose to supplement their education with nontraditional learning experiences, summer still matters. But for at-risk students, year-round schooling might help close the gap. Still, when you combine this information with research from Ohio State in 2007 that indicates while students in year-round schools learned more during the summer (when others were on break), they seemed to learn less than other children during the rest of the year. Is it any wonder we can’t agree on a course of action?

Of course, in theory, rearranging and/ or extending the school year would provide more professional development time for teachers, resulting in more imaginative lessons for the students, and more experiences in the neglected fine arts. However, some parents and teachers have seen what happened to kindergarten when it transitioned from a half-day to a full day of instruction and now have reservations. An intense push for early reading became a priority in many classrooms.

Many argue that if we want to compete globally, then our students need to be in school more. However, Finland, a world leader in reading, doesn’t even start its children in school until age seven and then they quickly surpass our performance scores. While some countries’ children do attend school more days, they are at school for fewer hours each day. Interestingly, while American students spend an average of 3.8 hours in math and science instruction, among the highest reported internationally, our teenagers still trail their peers globally. Given these stats, parents and teachers would agree that we don’t necessarily need more time. What we do need is the time spent in school to be of better quality.

Arguments against year-round schools are plentiful. Aside from the cost associated with rearranging or extending the school year, the most common concerns seem to be the following: student summer employment will be virtually impossible; working parents may have difficulty finding child care for only intermittent weeks; and unless the change is widespread (translation: all the major counties and private schools, too), extra-curricular activities, like athletics, would be greatly impacted by conflicting schedules.

While approximately 3,000 schools across the country currently use some type of year-round calendar, many school systems that have tried the year-round version are returning to a traditional school calendar. In 2008, the city of Virginia Beach’s school administrators announced it would be reverting its four schools with year-round schedules back to the traditional calendar by this school year. With some target schools, such as Seatack Elementary, performing worse than before academically, the school district simply couldn’t justify the additional one million dollars annually the year-round calendar was costing taxpayers.

Other school districts, such as Miami-Dade in Florida and Salt Lake City, are also switching back to the traditional schedules, as they found no performance difference in test scores between the targeted schools and the control groups. Patrick Russo, superintendent for Henrico County Public School, spent some of his educational career in Hampton, a school district that also experimented with year-round schools. “We didn’t see any difference.” So why then is the idea of year-round schools continuing to get so much attention?

Some administrators, like Russo, believe that if we not only reorganize but also add twenty to thirty days of instruction, then “We have a different ballgame.” But, as the superintendent points out, “Cultural expectations are hard to break. Resources need to be made available for staff as well as students.” Russo believes it’s just a matter of a reinvestment of funds, such as those allocated to account for students failing a grade and having to repeat a year, which would no longer be needed.

Yet, for those families who don’t live in the areas of Richmond with access to highly regarded public schools or who can’t afford private school tuition, supplementing mediocre education during the summer is one of the only viable options left for ensuring their children can compete. An extended summer vacation affords children and families the opportunity to excel based on individual needs. For some, this might mean a chance to visit nearby historical sites. For others, it might mean unwinding while tackling a summer reading list.

So while studies have yet to prove year-round schools are more beneficial, they have shown that student success depends largely on positive relationships between teachers and parents. The reality is that while some schools scramble to meet the objectives of No Child Left Behind, not all schools need fixing, which is why imposing a one-size-fits all solution, such as year-round school, spurs fervent debate. For some students, their time is better spent in school. But for many other families, summer vacation at home remains sacred.

Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.
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