NEW YORK — This is not exactly the school year as most adults remember it.
By mid-August, the 120 students at the John A. Reisenbach Charter School in New York's Harlem were finally poised to dive into summer vacation - for all of three weeks. And as they reconvene this week, there won't be any time-honored, post-Labor Day, first-day-of-school jitters. Their 205-day school year actually began in July.
For a growing number of schoolchildren in the United States, education reform means adjusting to a new school calendar. In the eyes of some educators, such brand-new routines are a way to create a crisper, more intense learning experience for public school students.
Between widespread standardized testing and the examples of a handful of high-profile charter schools experimenting with longer hours and higher standards, traditional public schools are feeling the bite of competitive pressure. Many are scrambling as never before to demonstrate performance. Some school districts are willing to rethink old traditions to gain an edge, and the familiar school calendar - 180 days sandwiched between Labor Day and mid-June - is among the notions being scrapped in the interests of inching test scores upward.
"Accountability is a buzz word across the nation, and if you look at accountability, that translates into testing,"
says Glenn Cook, director of communications for Rockingham County Schools in North Carolina. In Mr. Cook's state, 79 of 117 school systems now have an "early start" schedule, which means most kids are back in school by the first or second week in August.
The reason is simple: Students tend to score better on the state's standardized test if they take it before Christmas break rather than after, and the only way to get in enough pre-test school days is to begin in August. In Texas, many school districts have also shifted to an early start, and there are calls in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Virginia to do the same.
At none of these public schools, however, does an early start mean more instruction time. The 180-day calendar still holds. Some schools now sprinkle more brief breaks throughout the year, while others simply finish earlier in May.
But some educators predict that a longer school year will eventually become the norm. They say the US tradition of a lengthy summer break is based on an outdated agrarian mode of life - when children were needed to help on the farm - and fails to keep US schoolchildren competitive on a global basis.
Even in areas where there is no discussion of increasing the 180-day schedule, many school districts - especially those in urban centers where low test scores are a particular concern - now supplement their schedules with summer-school, after-school, and Saturday programs.
None of these are new ideas. "Everybody who does education policy thinks about playing with the school calendar," says Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "More instruction leads to better results. Nobody contests that."
And there's no mystery behind the fresh surge of interest in these means of extending instruction, says Professor Hess. "[School systems] are worried about looking bad on these high-stakes measurements."
In addition, what's turning up the pressure on many public schools, he says, is "a combination of these scorecards and the existence of charter schools."
While charter schools still represent only a minuscule fraction - about 1 percent - of the US school population, a tiny sample of high-profile successes are turning up the heat on traditional schools.
Presidential contender George W. Bush has wholeheartedly embraced KIPP Academy, a charter school begun in Houston, duplicated in New York, and now scheduled to start up at various sites around the US.
In Houston, the five-year-old KIPP serves a student body that is 99 percent minority, of whom 92 percent qualify for free lunches. Working with both an extended school year and a longer school day, nearly 100 percent of KIPP's students pass the Texas state test, and a large number of the school's graduating eighth-graders either find places at one of Houston's top public high schools or are offered scholarships by prep schools.
The existence of even one high-achieving school like KIPP in a struggling district raises questions for every other school in that district.
"Anytime you have a wonderful success story like KIPP you have to look at similar schools in similar urban areas and ask: How come they're not doing that?" says Kathy Christie, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
And many are predicting that successes like KIPP will not be unique. Charter schools have the advantage of greater flexibility in many areas, including the way in which they hire faculty. While extending the school day or year at an established school would require difficult negotiations with teachers accustomed to a different rhythm, many charters are free to recruit only teachers willing to take on the extra work.
The Reisenbach school day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The extra 25 days during the summer are seriously employed. A tableful of the school's kindergartners, asked what they learned this summer, made a quick list: how to tell time, the concept of negative numbers, how to make masks, and what a botanist does.
Romania Singleton, parent of one of the kindergartners, says she can hardly believe the difference between the lackluster experience her son Caesar had last year at his neighborhood public school, and this year's learning-intensive time at Reisenbach.
"Now he comes home all energetic and enthused, sounding out words all the time and starting to teach his little sister and me Spanish," says Ms. Singleton.
Reisenbach is a brand-new school - its first full academic year concluded in July - but early testing results look promising. Independent tests show many of the school's kindergartners now reading at a first-grade level, while standardized tests show fifth-graders made about 12 months of academic progress in an eight-month period.
The existence of innovative charters is cause for optimism on the part of some education analysts. To the extent that schools like Reisenbach succeed, "We can expect a lot of constructive change" in public schools, says Ms. Christie. She predicts a more flexible schedule for high school graduation will be among the next areas of widespread change.
But not every one agrees that tinkering with the school calendar has brought positive results. Tina Bruno of the San Antonio-based Texans for a Traditional School Year points out that in her state, early school starts do not add a single day of instruction. She also says that none of the districts starting earlier have been able to report improved test scores as a result.
Realistically, it's a mistake to expect too much from such practices, says Nina Shokraii-Rees, senior education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Ms. Shokraii-Rees agrees that more time for instruction has been one of the reasons for KIPP's success, but insists that the school's gains are built on a much more complex foundation.
"To be honest I don't think any of us have figured out exactly what it is that they're doing well," she says, adding that the rush to replicate KIPP's more superficial elements could prove fruitless. "Extending [the school year] without taking into account why you're doing it could just lead to wasting money," she says.
The real lesson to be learned from KIPP, she says, is the strength that lies in "stable leadership, coupled with common sense solutions."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society