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Year-round school calendar: Will it benefit students?

Posted: September 16, 2014 9:48 a.m.
Updated: September 16, 2014 9:47 a.m.
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Rosa Parks started a year-round calendar, with cycles of nine weeks on and three off, with the third week being a special remedial session for lagging students.

It’s mid-September, and most schools have barely begun classes, but students at Rosa Parks Elementary School are getting ready for vacation. Fall break for the Portland, Oregon, elementary school starts on Sept. 22 and runs for three weeks.

If you’re a kid, that’s the “good” news. The “bad” news is that your school began way back on July 21, while most young people were still enjoying their summer vacation.

This fall, Rosa Parks started a year-round calendar, with cycles of nine weeks on and three off, with the third week being a special remedial session for lagging students.

Unlike many schools that use year-round calendars to squeeze more kids into fewer buildings, Rosa Parks has plenty of room. Here, it’s all about academics.

Principal Tamala Newsome hopes the change will bolster lagging test scores by eliminating “summer learning loss” and allowing the school to focus resources during the breaks on the school’s ample supply of struggling kids.

With an impoverished student body and test scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide, Rosa Parks is anxious to break out of a rut.

“What we were doing was not working,” she said, “so why would we just keep doing it? And our data told us the summer slide was killing our kids.”

Summer learning loss is widely viewed as a serious problem, particularly among poor and at-risk students that attend Rosa Parks. And yet, evidence remains surprisingly muddled as to whether the year-round calendar makes a difference.

The U.S. Department of Education reported that the number of students in year round schools climbed from 1.5 million to 2.5 million, but more recent numbers are elusive.

And interest in the model continues to percolate. This year, Michigan allocated $2 million to help local schools shift over to year round -- primarily by adding air conditioning for the dog days of summer.

“There has not been enough quality research to say for sure if this will work, said Rudy Rudolph, an administrator at Portland Public Schools, “but there is enough positive indications to justify the Rosa Parks pilot program.”

Portland’s designated guru on year-round schooling issues, Rudolph has read everything she could find on year-round schooling and talked to those who do it all over the country. She knows that evidence on academic payoffs remains disputed.

But she also thinks that Rosa Parks is a strong test case for the approach, with its lagging test scores and its commitment on remedial programs during the three-week breaks.

“I would not have recommended it if I had not found positive responses on balance,” Rudolph said.

Deep challenges

Tucked in the northern corner of Portland against the Columbia River, Rosa Parks Elementary is the centerpiece of a cozy community of two-story apartment buildings -- with courtyards full of playing kids, a buzzing sports center and a community garden full of corn and squash plants.

It’s a vibrant, diverse neighborhood. Students at Rosa Parks speak 18 languages, ranging from Ukrainian to Chinese, from Spanish to Somali.

But there are serious challenges here. According to the school guide on Portland’s Oregon Live website, last year just 34 percent of the school’s third-graders met reading expectations -- against 74 percent citywide and 66 percent statewide.

The housing stock here was rebuilt several years ago in an effort to cure longstanding social problems, as the neighborhood suffered from serious drug and crime problems. Safety has improved, but poverty remains high. Ninety-six percent of Rosa Parks’ students are on free or reduced-price lunch, and many speak a foreign tongue at home, adding a layer of difficulty in the classroom.

The summer learning slump is widely understood to be troubling in high-poverty schools like Rosa Parks. This is where academically focused year-round schools differ sharply from the space-saving models quite common in California. Space-saving models stagger breaks so the building is never empty. Academic year-round models, like Rosa Parks, focus on keeping kids engaged with school by having shorter breaks and by often leveraging part of each break to help struggling kids.

It’s only been a few weeks, but so far Newsome thinks the gamble is paying off. After getting the kids back from the short break this summer and launching the year-round experiment, she said her teachers could immediately see the difference.

“We can tell when the kids came back that they had not fallen back as far,” Newsome said. “We just hit the ground running. We see a difference in momentum. It feels good.”

Disputed evidence

In Portland, Rudolph and Newsome hope that week-long interventions during each shorter three-week break will keep kids focused on school and help lagging kids catch up before they get too far behind. The alternative, Newsome says, is to wait and use summer school for the same purpose, scrambling from further behind.

Newsome believes that the murky evidence on year-round schools comes from mixing academically focused schools like Rosa Parks with the money-saving multi-track schools.

But will the new schedule and the interventions make a difference where it counts, in test scores and graduation rates? The evidence is disputed and murky.

In 2006, Paul von Hippel, a leading expert on statistical methods at Ohio State University, crunched the data and concluded that “year-round calendars do little to fix the problem of summer learning. Instead, they mainly hide the problem by sweeping it under the rug of fall, winter, and spring.”

Summer learning loss, von Hippel concluded, “is a symptom of disadvantages in children’s non-school environments -- disadvantages that cannot be eliminated merely by rearranging the 180 days of the academic year.”

Von Hippel, like most researchers, accepts that increasing the length of the school year does make a difference, and he notes that the intervention strategy does exactly that, adding an additional three to four weeks of instruction for the targeted students -- a substantial increase.

In short, Rosa Parks may get improved outcomes, but if von Hippel is right, it will be due to more time in class rather than the year-round schedule.

What we know

Many educators, like Newsome, feel instinctively that slicing up the lengthy summer break, even without additional instruction, should boost academics.

One who shares the instinct is Linda Forward, an administrator with the Michigan Department of Education. Michigan this year offered limited grants to local schools to help them shift over to year-round school.

Forward shares the instinct, but pushed on the evidence, she can’t immediately put her finger on the research backing up the year-round model as an antidote to the summer slump. She thinks it must be there.

But Forward does agree that class time improves outcomes. Her ideal school year, she said, would run 220 days instead of 180, putting us equal with South Korea and much longer than most European countries.

But getting to that longer school year presents numerous hurdles, including infrastructure. The Michigan grants aimed to help schools with older buildings install air conditioning, a prerequisite for hot August classes, Forward said.

And so Michigan, like the rest of the country, is still experimenting, looking for data on year-round schooling while at the same time shifting public perceptions of what a school year should look like, softening up the public for a longer school year.

Michigan may be edging this direction with the $2 million it offered this year to help schools shift to the year-round calendar, Forward suggested.

Getting to a longer school year, Forward said, is not just a matter of public persuasion. It also presents challenges for managing infrastructure, building cleaning and maintenance -- and, most importantly, money. Personnel, heating and infrastructure costs would jump substantially, and schools are already underfunded on the current calendar.

It’s here that any dialogue about the year-round calendar and more instruction days merges into other debates, such as those over class sizes. The Brookings Institution’s Matthew Chingos has argued forcefully that larger class sizes should be tolerated as a means to afford a longer school year.

Would Forward accept such a tradeoff? “Yes, of course,” she said. “I wouldn’t advocate 45 students in a class. But if it’s a matter of 18 versus 25 and more days of instruction, yes.”

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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