School's in for summer


Year-round students sweat the test while the rest play at the beach By Merry Mayer


illustrations by Tom Deja  

For the first time since she started elementary school, Julia Hart, 11, will sleep late and hang out at the pool this August instead of going to school, but she isn't happy about this new freedom.

Until she graduated this past June, Julia went to school year-round, attending Lincoln School, which serves kindergartners through fifth-graders in Mundelein. It is one of a handful of schools in the Chicago area that doesn't follow a traditional academic calendar.

"I've never been on a regular schedule," she says. Now, as she moves to middle school, Julia will have to adjust to having a longer summer and going to school nearly steady from September to December. At Lincoln, she would have had three weeks off in October.

Alexis Philbrick, 10, also graduated from Lincoln this year. Her family regularly traveled to Minnesota several times a year during the school's three-week session breaks. That won't be happening as much.

"My friends [were] like, ‘A break again!' Some of my friends [thought] we had less school than them," she says.

But kids at year-round schools don't go to school any more or less than those at traditional ones. Although they are known as year-round, advocates prefer the title "modified calendar" as more accurate. In these schools, students usually attend in nine-week chunks and then get three weeks off. In a nod to the traditional calendar, students get six weeks off in the summer.

Advocates of the modified calendar say the biggest advantage is that kids forget less of what they learned over shorter breaks. Studies have shown that students on average lose about 2.6 months of grade level in their math skills over a three-month summer break.

Summer's effect on reading skills is not as clear. Poorer children tend to lose a lot of their reading comprehension and word recognition, while middle- and upper-income kids may gain skills over the summer, according to the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Teachers in traditional schools usually have to spend several weeks at the beginning of each school year reviewing material that kids forgot over the summer.

In the five years since Haskell Academy in Rockford changed to a year-round calendar, the school's overall ISAT score rose from 9 to 39. Principal Vicki Jacobson thinks the calendar has a lot to do with it.

"From when we start in July, every quarterly assessment we do, we see we get a little ahead of the game," she says. "We don't have the long summer break, only five or six weeks in summer, so we don't have to spend weeks reviewing."

Who's watching the kids? But opponents argue that a year-round calendar makes it harder on parents to find childcare for only a couple of weeks and at times of the year when kid-friendly options such as enrichment camps and park programs aren't available.

"For parents who have to work, it creates tremendous childcare problems," says Billee Bussard of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., a staunch opponent of year-round schools.

Bussard is a journalist who feels year-round schooling is such a bad idea that she has made a vocation of fighting it. She runs a Web site, (launched in 2001 on June 21-the first day of summer), that lists the many evils of changing the school calendar. She says one of her greatest fears is that the year-round movement will eventually lead to kids going to school more days, perhaps in the guise of improving test scores, but also allowing parents to work longer hours at their jobs.

"Keeping kids in school longer makes it easier to demand longer workdays from employees," Bussard says. "Year-round schools set up a structure so schools provide the babysitting."

Although Bussard says she is "not saying this is some kind of grand scheme," the thought isn't so farfetched when you consider that some year-round schools help alleviate at least some of the childcare dilemma by offering activities during a portion of their breaks.

Lincoln School in Mundelein provides enrichment classes each weekday for two of the three intercession weeks, even providing lunch service. Kids can choose to take classes such as "Storyacting," "Reptiles & Raptors" or "Model Rocketry." About 250 of the school's 430 students take the intersession classes, says Lincoln Principal Shawn Walker.

But with many of these fun classes starting at eight in the morning, do kids really feel like they have a break from school?

Margaret Warzecha, a stay-at-home mom with two children at Lincoln, says her kids really enjoy the classes. "They wanted more. They say things like ‘Mom, you didn't sign me up for drama class.' "

Haskell in Rockford had offered classes during only four days of its intersession period until budget cuts forced the school to cancel them. The classes incorporated core curriculum and involved fun activities such as kite making, simple machines and cooking, Jacobson says. About 95 percent of Haskell students took the classes.

During the break parents can still receive on-site daycare provided by the local YMCA, Jacobson says.

A cure for overcrowding The year-round concept has caught on in some school districts for economic, not academic, reasons.

Eight years ago when Pablo Casals Elementary in Chicago went to a year-round calendar, the move was designed to alleviate overcrowding. Parents were given three options: bus kids out of the neighborhood, go to an extended day with kids divided into morning and afternoon shifts, or move to a year-round multitrack calendar. They chose the latter, Principal Aleen Donaldson says.

Casals, which serves the low-income Humboldt Park neighborhood, is one of 12 year-round multitrack public schools in Chicago. Because these multitrack schools are open throughout the year, they can accommodate 33 percent more students, with each track following a separate calendar. Since classes are always going on at least for some, Casals can't offer fun classes to all its students on break. The scarce space is used for Sylvan Learning Centers to tutor students testing two years below grade level.

David Espinoza, who develops the year-round calendar for the Chicago Public Schools and works in the office of instruction and school management, thinks this kind of tutoring is a good idea.

"Kids don't have to sit in a classroom all year feeling like dummies," he says. They get intervention early, instead of waiting until summer school to get help, as they would under a traditional calendar.

Marisol Silva has four kids at Casals, ranging from first to eighth grade. "They get that extra help from Sylvan [Learning Centers]," she says. But while the year-round schedule works for her family, she says parents with little ones have a harder time finding childcare during breaks.

The multitrack calendar allows Casals to offer its students another advantage: smaller classes. Donaldson says she has been able to maintain an average class size of between 24 and 28.

There have been other advantages as well. Bilingual children, who are all kept on one track, can continue building their English skills without a long interruption. Disciplinary problems also have lessened, Donaldson says. The different tracks allow her to separate the sixth-graders from seventh- and eighth-graders, at least for a portion of the year. And, since there are fewer older children in the building at any one time, there are fewer kids to act up, she says.

But even with these advantages, Casals will likely transition back to a traditional calendar by the 2006-2007 school year since the school's enrollment has fallen, Donaldson says. She admits having mixed feelings, but says it would be administratively easier to be like the majority of schools. When most Chicago Public Schools are not in session during the summer months, it has been hard for the school to get necessities such as cafeteria service-a complaint shared by many year-round principals.

Also, Donaldson has seen absenteeism rise when traditional schools are out. Parents and kids get confused when they hear that the Chicago Public Schools are off, but year-round schools aren't on the regular schedule, she says.

Still, other Chicago schools may be moving to a year-round schedule as a cure for overcrowding. The Chicago Board of Education has adopted a new policy requiring overcrowded elementary schools to move to a year-round calendar before they control enrollment by busing some kids to other schools.

Selling a new calendar School districts that consider going year-round often face significant opposition.

In Plainfield this past April, the school board took year-round education off the table as one of the options for dealing with the district's exploding school-age population.

According to surveys taken at three town hall meetings, 87 percent opposed year-round schooling; 9 percent were unsure and needed more information. In addition, 1,200 residents signed a petition opposing the idea.

The major concerns for parents and teachers were practical matters, such as childcare and vacation issues and the possibility that home prices in the area might fall if schools went year-round, says Board of Education member Ron Kazmar.

"I was somewhat disappointed that the impact on academics wasn't focused on as much," he says, adding that he doesn't think a year-round schedule would have helped students. "At best it's educationally neutral, especially when you're talking about multitrack," he says.

When Lincoln opened as a year-round school eight years ago, the community was skeptical. And it was teachers and parents, more than kids, who had to make the biggest shift in thinking, says Walker.

Lincoln is unique among Mundelein's three public elementary schools. It is a choice school-parents can opt out and send their kids to one of the other schools that operates on a traditional calendar. And it offers multiage classrooms and alternative teaching methods.

But, Walker says, "The year-round calendar is the most popular [feature] according to our survey we do each year with parents and staff."

The jury is still out Haskell's ISAT improvements aside, there is little hard data that one calendar is better than another for children.

"There was no negative impact on achievement test scores [from the modified calendar]," says Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and director of the Program in Education at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "If any difference, there was a small, might say very small, academic advantage on the modified school calendar."

But he cautions that it is difficult to do good research in this area because it is hard to find out how kids would have behaved without the calendar change. Much of the research makes little attempt to equate students in traditional vs. modified-calendar schools beyond comparing schools in the same district, which may have very different student populations, he says.

Both Casals in Chicago and Lincoln in Mundelein lack evidence that the calendar has made a difference to their schools.

"We've looked at our test scores for the last five years and we are inching up," says Casals' Donaldson. "But," she adds, "unfortunately, there is no real data that shows the four tracks have helped us [academically]. It's just a feeling we have."

"We're pretty comparable to the other schools [in the area]," says Lincoln's Walker about the school's test scores.

But others argue that poor children, in particular, lose under a traditional calendar because they usually aren't reading books, much less visiting museums or attending specialty camps during the summer. Instead, they may be spending endless hours unsupervised, doing little more than watching television.

"The research says most clearly that when young people are not engaged in constructive activities [during long breaks] then there is learning loss," says Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning.

Merry Mayer is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has two children.



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