Back to school already? Debate continues over year-round benefits
Back to school time has arrived for those students on the year-round schedule, but the debate continues over whether learning improves with shorter, more frequent breaks.
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Some year-round schools also use the short breaks for enrichment or remediation, which can keep struggling students on track throughout the year rather than dumping them in summer school. The year-round concept is also popular among some charter and private schools, where it's seen as a way to make sure kids don't lose ground during long breaks.Skip to next paragraph
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But Ann Barrett took her two kids out of a year-round program in Jacksonville, Fla., in the early 1990s, partly because she had an older child in high school on a traditional calendar and they had no vacations together. She transferred her younger two to a magnet school that went by the regular calendar, but she said that within a few years, the year-round schools in her district returned to the traditional schedule because "they never had any success to point to. It's one of those things. They try it for a couple years, then go back to the regular thing."
In districts where year-round calendars are adopted to ease overcrowding, children are placed on what's called a multitrack system with staggered vacations. This can be a huge cost-saver: The kids are never all there at the same time, so the school can accommodate more students in the same space.
In California, multitracking began in the '80s as a way to cope with "an upturn in elementary grade enrollments — the baby boom echo," said Fred Yeager, a spokesman for the California Department of Education. Multitracking meant the state didn't have to build as many new schools, and the shorter summer breaks were thought to combat "the learning brain drain," he said. But the number of multitrack schools has since gone down, to 95 from several hundred in past years, Yeager said.
In Wake County, N.C., where 50 public schools are on the year-round system, "we definitely use the year-round calendar to maximize space and address some capacity issues," said spokesman Mike Charbonneau. "We have had a rapidly growing school system for the last 10 years."
Clark County, Nev., which is the Las Vegas school district, also used multitrack year-round schedules to cope with overcrowding. But enrollment has been falling in the area, and all the schools there have gone back to traditional calendars.
Up-to-date statistics on year-round schools are hard to come by. The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics found 14 percent of US public schools were on year-round calendars in 2008, with the largest percentage in the South and West.
Billee Bussard, who runs an organization in Florida called Summer Matters, says there's another piece to the argument against year-round schools. "The year-round calendar limits the window of opportunity for parents to give their children learning experiences outside the school walls," she says, echoing many parents who cite the importance of extended family time, opportunities for summer camp or travel, and summer jobs that help teens earn money and build resumes.
West Virginia has a few schools with what is referred to in the state as the "balanced calendar" — meaning breaks more evenly distributed throughout the year. In June, the statewide West Virginia PTA passed a resolution supporting balanced calendars as a way to combat summer learning loss.
With parents divided in their preferences and conflicting research results, the debate over which calendar is best may come down to the way Justin Raber, West Virginia's PTA president-elect, put it: "It is a discussion that each individual community should have to ensure that the educational system is meeting the needs of their greatest asset — the children."