For some kids, reading, writing, and 'rithmetic are now year-round

KARIM Chamie, a doe-eyed eighth-grader, doesn't like going to school year round. ``I'd rather have a long vacation in the summer,'' she says, pausing during a softball game at the Le Conte Junior High School here, which has been on a year-round calendar for several years.

But ninth-grader Thao Nguyen enjoys it. She thinks the shorter but more frequent breaks that come with a full-year schedule make it easier to remember the difference between a gerund and a Jacuzzi: ``When you get three months off, you tend to forget a lot of what you've learned.''

The two students represent flip sides of a growing debate in American education over year-round schooling. [Federal report on back-to-basics, Page 3]

Long an isolated practice in a few communities, full-year schooling is now becoming commonplace in many cities throughout the South and West, as local officials seek ways to ease overcrowding.

Last week the Los Angeles school district -- the nation's second largest -- decided to dramatically expand its year-round program starting in 1987. Currently, about a quarter of the district's students attend classes on such a schedule. Next year 19 or so more schools will be added to the list, and by the early 1990s more than half of the district's 618 facilities are expected to operate on year-round schedules. Elsewhere the story is similar. In recent years, full-year programs have been started or expanded at schools in Houston; Las Vegas, Nev.; Provo, Utah; and Oxnard, Calif. They join San Diego, Denver, and Salt Lake City, which have either already had some year-round schools or are exploring them.

``It looks like things are really moving rapidly now,'' says Dr. Charles Ballinger, executive secretary of the National Council on Year-Round Education. Now, 425 schools with an enrollment of 340,000 students operate on year-round calendars -- up from 336 schools five years ago. Most interest in the controversial concept is in California and rapidly growing Sunbelt cities, which face severe overcrowding.

Year-round programs are a way for districts to seat more students without spending millions on new classroom buildings. Typically, students are divided into groups that attend classes for 45, 60, or 90 days and then have a 15- to 42-day break.

The starting times of the groups are staggered so that, at any given time, one-fourth to one-third of the school's students and teachers are on vacation. Thus, a school with 1,500 seats could accommodate 2,000 pupils.

In Los Angeles, the extra capacity will be needed to help cope with an estimated 82,000 additional students expected over the next five years, many of them Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

The problem in California extends beyond Los Angeles. Many rapidly growing suburban areas in the state face severe overcrowding, too. Over the weekend Gov. George Deukmejian, in his weekly radio address, proposed a five-year, $4 billion program to help cope with the problem. Most of the money would be earmarked for new school construction and renovation of existing structures. The proposal includes many ideas that were contained in a bill the state legislature passed last year, but which was vetoed by the governor.

In Los Angeles, officials are taking other steps to relieve overcrowding, including reopening closed schools and building temporary ``bungalow'' classrooms. But the expanded year-round program was seen by some as a necessary last resort.

Advocates of full-year education, though, believe the practice has more benefits than saving space. They see it saving taxpayers money by making more productive use of schools.

There is also some evidence that it can improve the learning process through better pacing of instruction, and some schools are adopting year-round calendars for this reason. In Buena Vista, Va., school administrators credit an unusual extended-year program with improving math and reading skills and lowering the dropout rate. Students there go to school for three quarters and have the option of attending a fourth summer term. Fifty-six percent now choose to do so.

``There is no way we could take this program out now,'' says Buena Vista school superintendent James C. Bradford Jr. ``It means that much to the people of the city.'' Improvements in math and reading skills have also been reported in Houston and in Oxnard.

But many parents consider full-year schedules disruptive to family life and vacation schedules. ``Summer camps are wiped out,'' says Susan Lerner, a lawyer who is president of a Los Angeles-area group fighting the city's year-round program. Some high schools have found it difficult to make students' schedules jibe with extracurricular activities.

Le Conte Junior High, a cinnamon brick building in a working-class neighborhood here, illustrates some of the problems as well as the promise of the concept.

The school's year-round calendar, in use for about six years, permits enrollment of 500 more students than would be possible with the traditional, nine-month calendar. Many students and teachers like the more frequent breaks.

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