Archive for Thursday, August 17, 2000

The year-round proposition

Has the summer break from school outlived its usefulness?

August 17, 2000

It's a cherished American tradition that has inspired rock-and-roll tunes, full-length motion pictures and countless teacher-assigned essays, but as the summer vacation dwindles to its last few remaining days, a few questions rise to the fore:

Has the summer vacation outlived its usefulness?

Is taking three consecutive months away from the classroom the best way to teach students while preparing them for the future?

Might more than a handful of Kansas City metro area schools someday go toward a year-round school calendar?

"The real question is when do we make the change?" said Marilyn Layman, the superintendent of the DeSoto school district.

Many educators would say the traditional school calendar is something of a dinosaur a relic from a bygone era when students took the summer off to help harvest the crop.

Times have changed
"Fifty years ago, more people were not in school as there were teen-agers who were," said Dave Winans, superintendent of the Eudora school district. "Historically, we're just an eye blink from a time when parents thought it was silly for their boys or girls to stay in high school.

"What good is that? We need you here on the farm or to do something practical."

Times have changed.

So has the world.

The competition for jobs accentuates the importance of preparing young people as well as possible through any means available technologically or educationally.

Today, there are about 2,880 schools nationwide that have done away with the traditional summer vacation by going to an alternative calendar, according to the National Association for Year-Round Education.

Twenty years from now, alternative calendars might likely be the norm.

"I would think we would see the alternative calendar in a lot of places," Layman said. "We're going to have to do something to keep up with the job-market demands for our students and teachers."

The number of DeSoto students enrolled in the district's summer school program is an indication to Layman that a number of parents would be supportive of an alternative calendar.

"Parents want their children doing something constructive during the summer months," she said.

Many children are involved in summertime activities from swim lessons, to sports camps to 4-H. At least one parent believed these programs, all of which contribute to the development of a child, might fall by the wayside with an alternative school calendar.

"I know a lot of kids who spend their summers working on their 4-H projects to get ready for the county fair," said Eudora resident Carma Lister, a parent and daycare provider. "I would hate to see those programs go away."

A total commitment
Proponents of the alternative calendar say doing away with any extracurricular program is not the intent. However, they acknoweledge that changing the school year would require a fair amount of tweaking from virtually all members of the community.

"You need a commitment from a lot of different folks," Layman said. "You need a buy-in from the community. It's got to be a total understanding of what it's going to take for everyone involved."

Schedules would have to be put in sync from parents to teachers to daycare providers. Students would have to adjust, as would the employers, who hire the students for part-time after-school and summer jobs.

"It takes a lot of coordination from the community," Winans said.

But if a community buys into the alternative school schedule, Winans and Layman agreed the results are dramatic for two reasons.

First, statistics show that teachers at the elementary level spend an average of six weeks at the start of each school year reviewing what was learned in the previous school year. With a shorter break between sessions, teachers would not need nearly as long for reviewing, thus leaving more time for learning new topics.

Second, with students and teachers taking periodic breaks during the school year, a great amount of stress and fatigue is lifted, Winans said.

"The alternative schedule eliminates the feeling where teachers and students wonder if anyone is ever going to let them out of the box," Winans said. "The breaks come along often enough to keep everyone fresh."

Lawson goes year-round
Winans knows a thing or two about alternative schedules. Last year, Lawson Elementary of the Leavenworth school district went to a year-round format that saw students begin the school year in early August.

After six weeks of instruction, they took a three-week vacation. School resumed again in mid-October and went to the winter recess, where they took two weeks off and came back to school a short time after the new year.

Six more weeks of instruction led to a spring break of three weeks and the students came back to school in early April to late June to end the school year. They spent all of July away from the classroom and started a new school year last week.

"I would say any student or teacher who tried the alternative calendar for a year would love it," Winans said.

There are a number of different calendars being used nationwide. Layman said the DeSoto school district began looking into going to an alternative calendar four or five years ago and used Argentine Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., as its model.

What it found was a community that had pitched in to make the alternative calendar work. It embraced the new concept. Daycare providers adjusted their schedules. The teachers bought into the new system and once a month, the churches in the community step forward on Fridays to provide daycare and allow the teachers an occasional day off.

Getting into a routine
Daycare has proven to be a major obstacle in the alternative calendar, but Lister, who at timescares for about 10 children from both Eudora and DeSoto, believes it's just a matter of changing routines.

"Once you got into the routine, it probably wouldn't be too bad," she said.

A little flexibility can go a long way. Those in the Argentine school community are examples of that, Layman said.

"They adapted to it," Layman said. "All of us feel students can gain academically from the alternative calendar, but it takes adapting to it. It changes everyone's lifestyles, but if you can adapt to it, the children will gain from it."

Layman is still at the conversational stage of this change in schedule. She is ready to talk about it with anyone willing to listen. Last week, at a superintendent's meeting in Olathe, she asked U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley what the federal government might be able to do to help schools make the change to a year-round format.

Conversational stage
It's only a matter of time, Layman believes, before all schools have an alternative calendar.

"It has to be at the right time for everyone. The dialogue will have to start soon. It's something we have been talking about for four or five years around here, but we haven't done much with it."

While Winans, too, is a proponent of the alternative format, making such a change in Eudora in the near future is a near impossibility because of a number of logistical problems. Because the schools are divided by grade level, all of the elementary schools would have to make the switch together.

"It would have to be all or nothing," he said. "I would not be resistant to it at all, but it's not something I feel I need to promote at this time. There is a big difference between doing it with one school in Leavenworth and doing it here."

Another problem is the lack of air conditioning in Eudora Middle School, which would make the summer months unbearable for students. That subject was raised last week at the school board meeting and the district is currently checking into the feasibility of someday installing air conditioning in the building.

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