Back-to-school has become a thing of the past in an increasing number of districts that keep class in session all year.
The number of public, year-round schools, also called “balanced-calendar” schools, increased by 26 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. More than 3,700 schools operate year-round nationwide, accounting for about 4 percent of all public schools. About 11 percent of them are charters.
“People are more aware now of the negative impact that summer has on learning retention,” says David Hornak, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education and superintendent of Holt Public Schools in Michigan. “Children are required to be retaught between four and six weeks annually on the traditional calendar. We question why we continue to educate kids on a calendar that was established 150 years ago.”
Holt Public Schools, a district of 5,600 students, has two year-round schools. One is going into its 21st year and the other, its third. Students started school in early August, and will have several two- to three-week mini-breaks throughout the year.
Year-round schools typically have higher student and staff attendance than traditional schools, and summer learning loss is minimized, Hornak says. The year-round calendar can also provide more remediation opportunities during the year, and prevent staff burnout with more frequent breaks, he adds.
Costs to install air conditioning in schools can be prohibitive for some districts, Hornak says. But schools without air conditioning can start earlier in the morning to avoid the heat, and cancel school if the heat index is too high, as they would for a snow day.
Other costs, such as additional transportation, are minimal, Hornak says. Teachers remain on the same salary scale, and may receive stipends for teaching optional remedial classes during the more frequent breaks, as they would for summer school.
Not a new effort
The 180-day school calendar was established in the late 1800s, when agrarian culture was more prominent and children would help with farming in summer months. Year-round schools have existed since the early 1900s, but have never become mainstream.
Michigan and Virginia provided grants to districts that want to shift to year-round classes this fall to cover the one-time costs of building modifications. Other states, including California and West Virginia, now offer information to districts on balanced calendars.
Research on year-round schooling is mixed, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report. There is some consensus that year-round schooling has no effect or a small positive effect on student performance; however the validity of these findings has been questioned, the report states.
“From what we’ve seen, these schools usually go for a few years, and then the district goes back to the traditional calendar,” says Tina Bruno, executive director of the Coalition for a Traditional School Year, a group of parents that supports maintaining the 180-day calendar and summer vacations. “The research is just not there to show that this is academically beneficial for our kids.”
Year-round classes can be costly to implement, and create difficulties for parents with children attending schools on different schedules, Bruno adds.
Aiding at-risk students
At almost half of the year-round schools, 75 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the 2014 Congressional Research Service report. Many other schools, including 100 in New York City, are keeping traditional calendars, but adding hours to the school day as an effort to aid struggling students.
Michigan’s Beecher Community School DistrictÁ‘in which 95 percent of the 1,100 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunchÁ‘started year-round classes two years ago. It was the first district in the state to try a districtwide year-round calendar. “At first we had an undercurrent of people not wanting to try it because it was something new,” says Superintendent Joshua Talison. “Now, the staff and students love it, and the district would never go back.”
Students get 10 days off every 45 days of classes, and have a six-week summer break. Students can attend remediation classes during breaks throughout the year instead of waiting for summer school, Talison says.
“It’s been the best thing we’ve ever done for my at-risk population, and we’re seeing the results,” Talison says. Administrators found that student and teacher attendance rose and discipline referrals declined after using the new calendar for a year. Reading and writing scores on state tests for grades 3 through 6 doubled, and ACT scores improved.
And last year, an elementary school was recognized as a National Title I Distinguished School. Another elementary school and a high school that were previously labeled Priority Schools by the state increased their scores by 15 points, and are no longer in the bottom 5 percent listing.
The district reallocated Title I money usually used for summer school. The community voted to pass a $2.2 million bond to install air conditioning in both elementary schools, but no additional general fund dollars were needed.
Parents have been highly supportive, Talison says. “If you have kids who are at risk and not making the achievement gains you wanted, you can look at eliminating the traditional calendar to eliminate learning loss,” he adds. “You have to have the support of your community and teachers, and have the financial means to do it.”
In Hall Fletcher Elementary, part of Asheville City Schools in North Carolina, the first day of school was July 17. The calendar has nine-week academic blocks, followed by three-week intersession breaks.
The first week of the break is for “Bonus Learning Time,” an optional week of school meant to reach students who need extra help. Teachers who participate are paid a stipend, the same as if they taught summer school, says Hall Fletcher Principal Gordon Grant. Last year, more than 55 percent of students attended.
During the following two weeks of break, the school offers a YMCA camp for families who need childcare.
The elementary school tried year-round classes in the 1990s. It didn’t last long because it was out of step with the regular district calendar, Grant says. “This time it was more tightly planned,” he says. “We’ve matched our calendar to the regular district calendar as much as possible.”
Thanksgiving break, winter holidays and spring break are the same, and the school year ends on the same day in June. But summer break lasts four weeks instead of 10, and the two intersessions take place in September and March.
Grant recommends spending a full school year planning the logistics of the balanced calendar, and that includes finding the funds for extra air conditioning and transportation costs.
Results are promising: Students’ reading skills dropped less after the four-week summer break than they had dropped after 10 weeks, administrators found. “The thing that’s always thrown in your face when you propose this is there’s no conclusive research that it’s better,” Grant says. “But in what area of knowledge acquisition do you expect to take 10 weeks off and improve?”