Big boost for year-round schools. But L.A. move brings concern about family impact

Year-round schooling is gaining ground in American public education, largely as a way to ease overcrowded classrooms. As it does, however, it is stirring renewed concern among many parents, who worry about its impact on family life and childrens' traditional summer vacation activities.

Debate over the merits of year-round school is likely to intensify in the wake of this week's decision by the Los Angeles school board to put all of its 618 schools on a year-round schedule in 1989. By expanding the concept to all 592,000 students in the district, from about one-quarter currently, Los Angeles has become the first major city in the country to adopt year-round schooling districtwide. Other cities considering such a move for space-saving or academic reasons will be watching the Los Angles experience.

``I think the impact will be that other districts will follow suit,'' says Dr. Charles Ballinger, executive secretary of the National Association for Year-Round Edutcation.

In Los Angeles, longtime opponents of the move, some of whom predict it will result in thousands of parents removing their children from public schools - similar to what occurred after busing came into effect in the late 1970s - are threatening legal action and recall elections against some board members.

``It is basically curtains for public education in Los Angeles,'' says Barbara Romey, a suburban parent who has been active in opposing year-round schools.

The National Education Association, California Teachers Association, and United Teachers of Los Angeles have remained neutral on the year-round issue.

The decision by the Los Angeles school district, the nation's second largest, does not mean longer school years for students. They will go roughly the same number of days as students on traditional September-to-June calendars. The difference is that their vacation breaks will be interspersed throughout the year, instead of concentrated in the summer.

Rotating groups of students allows for more efficient use of buildings, and thus the accommodation of more pupils. It is this space saving, and the potential to avoid spending money on new schools, that has been largely responsible for the slow but steady growth of the year-round movement in recent years.

Nationwide, some 410 schools in 15 states now operate on some kind of 12-month calendar. But the 350,000 students affected comprise less than 1 percent of total public-school enrollment.

Most of the interest has been in the rapidly growing West. Full-year programs now exist, for instance, in schools in Houston; Provo, Utah; Las Vegas, Nev.; Salt Lake City; San Diego, and Denver.

Los Angeles, with 90 schools currently on year-round schedules, has been the foremost user of the concept.

Some educators believe that, besides easing overcrowding, year-round schooling can improve the learning process through better pacing of instruction: Students forget less when they are not off all summer.

A few systems - Oxnard, Calif., is one - have attributed improvements in reading and math skills to year-round schedules..

``We concluded it didn't seem to make a difference,'' says Dr. Claire Quinlan, a consultant in the Oxnard department.

Not all evidence is so conclusive, though. A study by the California Department of Education found no overwhelming evidence to support the claim that 12-month calendars help or hurt academic performance.

The Los Angeles School Board's 4-3 decision to expand the concept was driven largely by overcrowding. The district has gained more than 20,000 new students since 1985. An additional 14,000 pupils are expected each year through 1996 - though enrollments are running far below projections.

A task force will be appointed by the school board to work out a year-round calendar for the entire district. Board members who supported the move contend it is an equitable and efficient way to ease overcrowding districtwide.

``There is no other industry or business that has multimillion-dollar plants idle for a part of the year,'' says board president Rita Walters.

Critics, though, argue that year-round schooling will disrupt family vacations, child care, summer camps, Little League, and other services and activities. There is also concern about whether the schools on the most intense year-round schedules will have air-conditioning. Dr. Ballinger says that state funding is expected to take care of the air-conditioning need.t

Some parents are worried about students finding summer jobs.

``The fight is just beginning,'' says Mrs. Romey, who is trying to rally a network of parents to block implementation of the plan. Meanwhile, everyone from the mayor's office to the local Girl Scouts is gearing up for the changes that will have to be made to accomodate the tens of thousands of students on year-round schedules.

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