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.

Gerry Broome/AP
Students return for their first day of classes at Barwell Road Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C., on July 9, 2012. Monday was the first day of school for 26,000 kids on a year-round calendar in the Wake County, N.C., public school system.

By the time summer's over, many families can't wait for school to start. Working parents have struggled to find camps or babysitting, kids are bored and teachers fret over "summer slide" — the academic losses that research shows hits kids from poor families hardest.

Year-round schooling might seem like the antidote, and in some parts of the country, schools with just a few weeks off are not uncommon. In Raleigh, N.C. and other parts of Wake County, for instance, this week was the first week of school for 26,000 students on a year-round calendar.

But year-round schools, which once seemed like a panacea for everything from low test scores to overcrowding, have proven to be a mixed bag. And some places that once embraced them — including Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and parts of California — have returned to traditional calendars.

Research on whether learning improves in year-round schools is mixed, with some year-round schools reporting gains and others finding that kids on traditional schedules do better. Esther Fusco, a professor at Hofstra University's School of Education, Health and Human Services, says that overall, "research suggests that students in high-needs districts and those who have disabilities do better in year-round learning situations. This is logical because these students do not have the down time that occurs over the summer. But the results are not very significant. I have not seen any study that shows students greatly improve."

Parents unfamiliar with the year-round concept may not realize that kids on these schedules usually have the same number of school days — about 180 a year — as kids in regular schools. But vacations are distributed differently. So instead of having 10 or 12 weeks off in summer, kids might have a series of three-week breaks. Or they might have six weeks off in summer with additional two-week vacations. For parents who need child care, those repeated short breaks can actually mean more headaches than one long summer break.

Year-round schools also typically cost more to run, thanks to air-conditioning, extra transportation costs and other expenses. And it's harder to make major repairs when classrooms are empty only for short periods.

Salt Lake City ended its year-round schools in 2011 after an analysis showed that comparable local schools with traditional calendars had better test scores, according to Jason R. Olsen, spokesman for the Salt Lake City School District. Going back to the regular calendar also saves the district money, Mr. Olsen said.

And yet, the year-round calendar has its fans. A survey showed that a majority of Salt Lake City parents preferred year-round schools to the regular calendar. "They liked having two weeks away from school every nine weeks," said Olsen.

Shannon Oelrich of Cambridge, Minn., loves having her kids in a year-round school that's offered as an option in her district on a first come, first served basis.

"I think it's good," she said. "The kids don't get as bored for the long break in the summer, and it's good to have a couple of breaks in the middle of the year. They're happier. And when they spend less time away from school, the teachers don't waste so much time reviewing."

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.

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."

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