L.A. Has Second Thoughts On Year-Round School, But Idea Gains in Nation

FOR Paras Maniar, going to school year-round means he can spend more time skiing in the winter, since he gets a longer-than-usual break in January.

But it also means he has to spend more time in the classroom in summer, when it can be Tabasco hot in uncooled buildings here in the San Fernando Valley.

"It can get really nasty when you are trying to learn quantitative math and you're sitting there sweating," says the 10th-grader from Van Nuys High School.

In other words, Paras Maniar is ambivalent about year-round schools - as is, it seems, much of the United States. The traditional academic calendar, in which students have three months off in the summer, is still the preferred choice in more than 95 percent of the nation's school districts. But a growing number of communities in recent years have been adopting year-round schedules, which stagger more vacations throughout the year, to relieve overcrowding or to improve learning.

Yet even in districts that go year-round, the issue often continues to sow divisions among parents, teachers, and administrators - sometimes even within the same family.

Evidence of the volatility surfaced in Los Angeles again recently when the school board decided to back away from the year-round program it instituted for all schools in Los Angeles County three years ago.

It wasn't a complete retreat. The Board of Education voted to allow parents, teachers, and administrators at most schools to decide on their own if they want to return to a traditional June-to-September calendar. It opted for local choice over another proposal that would have scrapped the year-round calendar altogether at many schools.

Los Angeles isn't the only one to rethink the issue. In Albuquerque, N.M., where one-fifth of the schools operate year-round, administrators are throwing the decision back to local schools. Marion County, Fla., jettisoned the idea in February.

For the most part, though, year-round schooling continues to gain modest momentum. Some 2,000 schools in 26 states operate on a year-round schedule - up from 1,650 schools a year ago and 425 seven years ago.

The idea has been most popular in fast-growing states in the West and South, where districts have not been able to cope with enrollment surges. Certain year-round calendars expand capacity by using classrooms at all times. One typical schedule alternates 90 days of schooling with 30 days of vacation.

By staggering these schedules in four "tracks," officials can keep one-fourth of the pupils on vacation at any one time, freeing up 25 percent more space at a relatively modest cost.

The idea is also championed for academic reasons. Advocates argue students' retention is greater over short breaks. Some districts have reported improved math and reading skills with year-round schedules.

Some teachers like staggered vacations, since it spaces rest time throughout the year, and a few police departments have reported drops in delinquent crime with kids off for shorter summers.

Still, opponents, mainly parents, argue that the schedules destroy traditional summer vacations, complicate extracurricular activities, and disrupt families whose children might be on different tracks.

LL these arguments, and a few more, have been swirling in Los Angeles for nearly two decades. The board's local-choice compromise coincides with a powerful movement to decentralize authority in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The decision will pose problems, though.

Schools now have only a few weeks to hold votes to decide what they will be doing this fall. Administrators predict a nightmare trying to coordinate busing and various activities if many schools change.

"I'm real concerned we are going to have calendars all over the place," says board member Warren Furutani, who opposed the proposal.

Others argue it is inequitable since about one-third of the schools - mainly in poor, minority neighborhoods - will have to remain on year-round schedules to ease overcrowding.

At Van Nuys High, a buff-colored building in a leafy neighborhood here, magnet program coordinator Joan Martin wonders what will happen to summer school if calendars change, since students are bused to the campus from all over the city for the special program.

Tenth-grader Rahwa Ghebremichael prefers returning to the traditional calendar. Getting an eight-week vacation in the winter, as the current schedule allows, makes it "difficult to remember everything" over the break, he says.

Alon Frydman, a ninth-grader, also likes the old calendar. Squinting into the sun, he says he used to volunteer at a summer camp, something he can't do now with less time off in August.

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