FOR the past 20 years, high school students in the tiny industrial town of Buena Vista, Va., have been going to summer school. While some still go to make up failed classes, most go to get credits for college or get ahead in school. The results are higher test scores, lower dropout rates, and a higher percentage of students attending college.
Recent studies have identified time as the missing factor in United States education reform. According to one study, American students spend half the time on academics that their German, Japanese, and French peers do. US students also spend too much time on ``frill'' subjects, like driver training, and not enough on basics like English and math.
While the idea of year-round schooling is not new - many school districts use it to fit extra students into overcrowded buildings -
Buena Vista started its program in 1973 expressly to use students' time more efficiently.
Most Buena Vista high school students either take one new class or two make-up classes in the summer. Students enroll to retake failed classes, to get requirements out of the way, or to gain college credit. They end up attending school 218 days a year, matching the Japanese.
A survey issued on May 5 by the Department of Education's National Commission on Time and Learning, found schools must add time to schedules for students to be able to compete internationally. Programs like Buena Vista's are among the remedies the study recommends for the nation's educational ills.
James Bradford Jr., Buena Vista's superintendent of schools since 1969, started offering an optional summer program at Parry McClure High School in 1973. Today, 65 percent of the students participate.
``It is becoming extremely obvious that given more time all children can learn what they need to learn to be functional,'' Dr. Bradford says.
The program initially met with opposition, but today ``the community would not let us do away with it,'' Wayne Flint, principal of Parry McClure, says. ``We would be fired for even mentioning it.''
For the most part, students do not mind spending their summer mornings in school.
``I'd be asleep anyway,'' says graduating senior Amy Richardson. ``It gives you something to do, and you keep in contact with your friends over the summer.''
The program has saved taxpayers $2 million over the past 20 years by making better use of school facilities and by not sending failed students back through the system the next year. It also gives teachers a chance to augment their income, although they, like the students, are not required to participate.
The year-round program has also saved students and parents money by offering students one year of college credit through dual-enrollment classes - college-level courses taught to high school students for high school and college credit.
Buena Vista's dual-enrollment program is different from similar programs because certified teachers teach the classes out of the high school.
Although Buena Vista is only six miles from Lexington, home of both Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, students can take college courses at their own school.
The school district also pays for teachers to get their master's degrees. This helps both the district and the teachers; the district gets better qualified teachers while teachers get higher-paying jobs.
Many of Buena Vista's social activities like games and dances center around Parry McClure High School, so much of the town's focus is on the high school.
``Because of the nature of the community, [the] school system tries hard to meet the needs of the community,'' says Mary Jane Mutispaugh, a government teacher at Parry McClure.
Even more educational innovations are coming to Parry McClure.
Next year, the high school will go to a block system. Students will take two two-hour classes in the morning. They will return to the same teachers in the afternoon for two 45-minute work sessions. During the work sessions, students can seek individual help from teachers or work independently on their own projects.
Bradford and Mr. Flint both think it will make better use of students' time while giving them more individual time with their instructors.
Teachers and students are enthusiastic about the new program.
``I'm looking forward to the block system,'' English teacher Shelby Martin says. ``It enables you to work with students that truly need you.''
Graduating senior Cristie Ayers says she is sorry there was no block system while she was in school.
FLINT admits that year-round schooling is not without problems. Most of these are logistical. Expensive air conditioning had to be installed in the high school, maintenance is hard to keep up since the building is always in use, and the workload for both teachers and administrators is greater.
Getting support for a year-round program is also difficult, as educators across the country have discovered. Many parents think their children already spend too much time in school, and many teachers don't want to work in the summer.
Bradford has endured much criticism over his style of education over the past two decades, but he still keeps pushing change in Buena Vista. Buena Vista's parents and students keep accepting the changes, although not always with as much enthusiasm as Bradford would like.
Today, however, with national studies and hard data backing up his methods, Bradford and Buena Vista are basking in some long-awaited praise.
``Year-round education for the benefit of children is going to happen,'' Bradford says.