Outlook: Year-Round School?

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Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Brigid Schulte, was online Monday, June 8, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her Outlook article about year-round school.

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Brigid Schulte: Hello Everyone,

Thanks for joining me online to continue our conversation about the school calendar and what makes for a good education. As you know, I wrote about year round schools yesterday in the Post's Outlook section. I've been flooded with emails - some think it's a great idea, others think it's a terrible one. I've done lots of research. I've been watching a modified calendar in action for several years. I'm eager to hear what you all have to say. So, let's talk!

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Lake Tapps, Wash.: This essay makes me sad, not because of the schedule change but because of what it says about traditional learning. Kids are learning things during "intersession." Why can't the whole year be conducted the same non-traditional way?

And while we're dispensing with regular scheduling, why don't we get rid of age-group divisions? Let's put kids together who are learning at the same level not just those who are the same age. All 60-year-olds don't play together. Why should all 7-year-olds?

Brigid Schulte: Hi Lake Tapps.

You raise a good point. If the most engaged and exciting learning is going on in an "off" time - what does that say about "on" time. I hope the essay gets people thinking about that. There's no doubt that standards and making sure all kids are learning are important educational goals. But the way we've chosen to enforce those goals - routine standardized testing - perhaps that's what we need to rethink.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Brigid,

You have presented an interesting case for year-round school, but it seems the focus of the article was on elementary age schools (K-6). Do you think year-round school would have the same benefits for middle and high schools? And would it be as easy to find activities for the intercessions that older kids would enjoy, yet still get something out of? I'm not too far removed from high school, and what I recall was that these kids are much harder to impress with such activities (although they can easily be bribed with food).

Brigid Schulte: Ha! Teenagers and food ... Good points - but if it makes sense for them, then we should figure out a way to do it. Maybe more workshop type learning - or science classes held outdoors. I'm sure there are middle and high school teachers who may be brimming with creative ideas looking for some kind of outlet.

I can imagine there would be great resistance to changing the calendar for high school students - they are an important part of the summer workforce and many are earning money for college.

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Central Virginia: In traditional 9-month schools, children usually have the option of taking summer school classes if they failed during the school year. What happens in year-round school? Have failure rates and graduation rates been tracked and compared?

Brigid Schulte: One of the things the teachers that I've spoken to have really liked is that on a modified calendar, they're able to provide remediation classes throughout the year, when the students really need them and can benefit from them. And the way they're able to teach the remedial intersession classes really helps the kids connect to the material, whereas most remedial summer school classes are taught at a central location, with teachers most kids don't know and often in a fairly dry, worksheet heavy way.

As far as failure and graduation rates - one of the problems with modified calendar is that there isn't yet a great body research. Dr. Harris Cooper, a researcher at Duke University who has reviewed all the modified calendar research, calls the quality of the current research as "marginal, to be kind."

The problem is, most of the research conflates modified calendars with intersessions that were undertaken for academic reasons, like at my kids' school, and modified calendars done solely to alleviate overcrowding - i.e., putting students on different calendar "tracks" throughout the year, so that the district doesn't have to build a new building. Under that model, there are no intersession classes, just vacation breaks at various times through the year. Research done recently out of Ohio found that kids on that calendar - with no intersessions - experienced the same learning loss that they've been able to measure with summer slide.

Long answer to say - good research hasn't been done yet to gauge the benefits

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Excellent idea. Two questions: Are students "required to participate in the "intercessions or are they completely optional? Second, is this idea arriving at the worst possible time as school systems are trying to reduce expenses rather than increase them ? Thanks

Brigid Schulte: To the first question - enrichment intersessions are optional. Remedial intersessions are required. Students are "invited" to remedial intersessions so as not to feel a stigma. But even invited students attend a half-day remedial class and are able to choose a half-day enrichment class.

And yes, this is the absolute worst time to be thinking about proposals that do anything but save school districts money.

Still, the Fairfax County school board was considering cutting funding for the modified calendars they run at seven schools to save more than $2 million each year. Then the former principal of Timber Lane, one such school, Diane Connolly, came to a meeting with a Power Point Presentation. This is what she showed:

*A three-year study by the county's accountability office compared Timber Lane to a traditional calendar school with similar demographics. At the end of the study period, Timber Lane, though it's population of students who spoke little or no English doubled (42 percent of the entire student population compared to the traditional calendar school's 22 percent) Timber Lane outscored the other school on every standardized test.

*Discipline referrals at Timber Lane dropped in half. Attendance was up, in part because Latino students who visit relatives for long periods at Christmas, when it is summer in the southern hemisphere, missed intersession, not school.

*98 percent of the students maintained their reading level over the shorter summer break, whereas on the traditional calendar they typically used to drop one or two reading levels. That meant not only that teachers did not have to spend four weeks reviewing material at the beginning of the school year, as they had in the past, but could jump in and start new material. And with students not falling behind in the summer and teachers able to catch them up during the intersessions - which had attendance rates around 92 percent - students no longer needed to go to remedial summer school, whereas a minimum of 100 failing students had been required to go in previous years. That saved the county money.

*89 percent of students who spoke other languages at home maintained their English proficiency over the summer break, as opposed to the 40 to 50 percent drop teachers used to see after the longer summer break on the traditional calendar.

*Teacher sick leave decreased, saving the cost of long-term subs.

*And finally, Timber Lane's 450 students attending five weeks of intersession every year, after six years at the school, would have added 30 weeks of school - or 180 days - by the time they leave 5th grade, at far below the $7,000 per pupil per year cost.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the thought-provoking article. I would suggest, however, that the focus is incorrectly placed on the schedule rather than the way we educate. I believe that's why the evidence is so unclear as to the positive impact of year round school. Doing the same thing, longer, is not a recipe for success. We need to rethink the way we teach and the creative "break classes" you highlight are great examples. But they are as applicable to the traditional schedule as they are the year round one.

Brigid Schulte: Amen.

There is no question that the ONLY way to ensure that kids get a great education is to give them great teachers - and give those teachers the flexibility to be creative, get to know their students and give them what they individually need.

You can extend the calendar, lower class size, test more - but the key is really good teachers - and good teachers using time in an enriching way

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Tampa, Fla.: We have friends who live in Cary, N.C. The school system there has instituted "year round" school, primary due to school overcrowding, not for educational benefit. Kids are divided into 4 tracks, and children go to school for 3 months, then they are off for 3 weeks. So, for any given school and any given time, a third of their students will be "off" for a three week period. My friend said that the primary complaints from parents have been due more to logistics (kids in same household on different "tracks" due to their grade level or where they attend school; or difficulties in arranging for family vacations or childcare) than concerns about educational impact.

Brigid Schulte: Yes - this is the more common modified calendar - and the academic benefits, if there are any, are questionable.

I understand about logistics. My son is heading to middle school and this will be the first 10-week summer since kindergarten for him, while my daughter will still have a five-week summer. At first, I was so worried about them being on different summers - but friends I've talked to said they've had no problems. We'll take our family vacation when they're both out, and he'll just go to camp while she goes to school in August.

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washingtonpost.com: Year-Round School? My Kids Love It. Yours Will, Too. (Post, June 7)

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Bennett Point, Md.: How to you respond to John Taylor Gatto, one-time teacher of the year in New York, who thinks that children should have more time to wonder and wander on their own and that public schools are government indoctrination centers?

Brigid Schulte: I agree wholeheartedly that students need time to wonder and wander. And for many, they do that during summer - lay on their backs and stare at clouds, tinker, discover their passion. But for a whole lot of students, summer is all about TV watching.

So the question becomes - how do we ensure that kids have that kind of wonder/wander time when most everyone's at work?

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Fairfax, Va.: I like the idea of year-round school. What about the teachers? Are the ones that teach during intermission the same ones that teach the rest of the time? When do they get a break?

Brigid Schulte: Some are, some aren't. There are a number of parents or community members who have taught intersession. (One of the coolest intersession classes I walked in had two parents dressed in kimonos, koto music playing, and the kids were doing sumi-e ink paintings and writing their names in Japanese - and most of these were kids who speak Spanish at home)

And different schools have different policies. At ours, the intersession coordinator encourages teachers to take breaks and not teach every intersession, so they don't burn out

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Ashburn, Va.: I enjoyed reading your article -- thank you! How are the school systems that are trying the modified/full year reaching that decision? Is it starting at the top, with the local govt's, or is this something parents have successfully pushed for?

Brigid Schulte: I think it's a combination of all of the above. In our case, the former superintendent knew that many of our students, particularly those who speak different languages at home, were losing serious ground over the summer and that summer school didn't seem to make much of a dent in that. She proposed the idea, but left it up to communities to decide. She would only consider proposals if 85 percent of the entire community supported it. In Alexandria, the parents and teachers at Tucker embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Our school was a tougher sell, but reached the 85 percent mark the following year and began our calendar a year after Tucker.

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Rockville, Md.: When I was in school, about 50 years ago, most of my time was mine -- except for classes and I needed the summer break to "catch up" with my mental health. I pity the modern child that is scripted 24/7 and now 12 months a year. When will they ever have time to be themselves? Or to be sane?

Brigid Schulte: I agree - I hate the thought of children being overprogrammed and overscheduled. But 50 years ago, the world looked very different. Most families could afford to have one parent stay at home. Most women had few career opportunities. And parenting expectations were much more hands-off than the helicoptering of today.

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Bowie, Md.: While I am enthusiastic about some aspects of year-round schooling, I am troubled by the thought of year-round projects, homework and stress. What are your feelings regarding homework, and do the year-round programs you envision include much work outside of school?

Brigid Schulte: There's usually no homework with intersessions. It's a very relaxed time.

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Upstate, N.Y.: As a working mother with two school-aged children, I am in favor of year-round school IF daycare providers, camps, and other caregivers can step up to the plate to provide care when school is not in session. Otherwise, we wind up doing the "elaborate shuffle" your article mentions, just at off-times of the year, when camps and daycares perhaps can't handle an influx of children, which makes it even more difficult. As it is now, it is rare for my children to attend more than 2 weeks of school without a holiday, early dismissal, or teacher's workshop shortening the school day, which is a really big hassle.

Brigid Schulte: That's the only way a modified calendar works, if all the pieces to the puzzle fit together. The daycare providers in our area worked with the school. So, when school opens in August, all the after care providers open up as well. And they remain open during intersessions. Our families with a stay at home parent often keep their kids home during intersession. Or many families take vacations at that time.

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Summer School: As someone who spent her summers at a camp in New England (and who sends her kids to the same camp each summer) I would hate to have kids miss out on summertime activities-like camp. And as someone who now lives in the south, I am keenly aware that our school buildings do not have adequate A/C to be used during the heat of July/August.

Brigid Schulte: My kids still have camp - they just go in June and July. But some families who spent entire summers at camp decided to leave the school. And I think that's an important point - modified calendars may not work for everyone. And given their added cost in these dire economic times, I would imagine that schools in the most dire need would be looked at first.

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Bonneau, S.C.: No questions, just comment. While I love the hands on education and have always felt that was the best way to learn, I don't approve of the year-round schooling. Why? Because it puts others in the seat to raise other parents children and the parents themselves are off the hook. When one has children, they are held responsible for their everything, including their love. Normal months of schooling, as is now, along with the great programs of hands on, should stay. People work, yes, but we still have a responsibility toward our children. Family is more important than all the schooling in the world.

Brigid Schulte: I agree wholeheartedly that family is the most important thing. But I would argue that I don't love my children any less because they are in a year-round school, or that I'm assuming less responsibility for them.

I fail to see how putting them in a great environment, regardless of whether its summer camp or intersession classes, is somehow getting off the hook or letting someone else raise them.

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Washington, D.C.: I saw that the modified school calendar at your school worked well for your students. Do you think it could have benefits for the failing schools here in D.C.?

Brigid Schulte: I think the Obama administration has made clear that they want much of the education stimulus money to go exactly to innovative reforms in troubled systems such as DC.

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Alexandria, Va.: My son who is a 3rd grader and my daughter who is in kindergarten both attend Samuel Tucker, which has a modified calendar school year. We moved up here from North Carolina last year. My son and daughter are thriving and learning things that I learned in middle school. Intersessions are great. He has learned about the time value of money (He charged me interest the other day for borrowing a dollar at a convenience store). I think an extended school year is a great system to bring our kids to a 21st century way of learning and education.

Brigid Schulte: Good to hear it

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Portland, Ore.: My mom, who lived in Portland, had summers off so they could flee the city to avoid polio and other diseases of summer before immunization. My dad had the summers off so he could work even more on the farm and timberland while hosting children of the Swiss Counsel from Portland. Cities are not the death traps they once were.

QUESTION: Summer off from school is no longer an economic or medical imperative so what is delaying year-round school now?

Brigid Schulte: MONEY. And tradition.

Modified calendars cost more, because you have to pay teachers for teaching longer periods, and cafeteria, maintenance and bus drivers for working longer periods.

And, as many of the comments in my email and some here indicate - summer is sort of a sacred cow to many.

The interesting thing is, Ken Gold wrote a really interesting book on the history of summer school. Long summer vacations - what we think of as almost a rite of passage of childhood - are really a post WWII phenomenon, a remnant of the factory age. Prior to that, some schools in rural areas were open only during winter and summer, so students could plant in the spring and harvest in the fall. Some urban districts were open all year round. It wasn't until elites began to want to escape the heat of the city and the prevailing medical view of the 1920s that students would suffer nervous breakdowns after expending excessive amounts of mental energy - that schools began letting out more routinely in the summer.

(By the way, I grew up in Portland, where I experienced long, if rainy, summers)

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my comment. In Miami, which otherwise has lousy schools, the best TV program available is "homework" where a teacher is available to answer questions that kids have about their assignments, or just about anything else. I'd bet it has a higher rating than almost any other cable program.

There is relatively NO educational programming left on TV. Commercialization has left us with NO choices except the news and C-Span (and they're not so hot either). We have 500 channels. There should be an interactive "math" channel, a history channel that actually addresses history rather than bunk, etc. There should be college level channels that provide live interactive classroom lectures. Channels that teach people how to do taxes, write resumes, earn a living. All 24/7.

Brigid Schulte: Not sure what that has to do with modified calendar - but cool idea!

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Arlington, Va. : Your article implies that kids only have two choices during the summer -- watch TV all day or look at the clouds. My children love the long days of summer precisely because they aren't on someone else's schedule. And despite the appeal of creative intersessions, the fact is the kids need to arrive, eat and depart according to the school's schedule. We use summer for "family field trips" when the mood strikes, picnics in the backyard, have pajama mornings, or spend all day swimming -- all depending on our mood on any given day. That's the priceless benefit of a long summer that can't be crammed in to 4 or 5 short weeks!

Brigid Schulte: That sounds wonderful. The point is - you should keep doing that. But not every family is able to. The traditional calendar works for you - great. It doesn't work for everyone. And the ones it doesn't work for are the ones who desperately need something different.

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Ashburn, Va. : You mentioned in the article that Arne Duncan supports a 12-month school year, and Obama supports it as well. What do you think are the realistic chances that this may happen?

Brigid Schulte: I think they've made clear they want to start with small, pilot programs in the most trouble schools and districts. Mass2020 is an interesting and innovative pilot project to extend the school DAY in public schools in Massachusetts. They also are starting in the schools that need it the most.

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Falls Church, Va.: The modified calendar is a very hard-sell right now. Our school board's goal is to close the achievement gap in Fairfax County, but they are still eliminating the modified calendar. It is being funded for one more year with stimulus money. Our community has seen a lot of growth and progress under this calendar it is hard to let it go. We are trying to be creative and show how this program can be done cheaper, but it still cost a lot of money.

Brigid Schulte: Right - they are expensive. AND they are tough to do well. It's one thing to simply have more time. It's quite another to look at the data, find creative resources and plan to use that additional time in the best and most enriching way.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Thank you for taking my question. I am currently doing my doctoral research in education and have not been able to find any conclusive research that students lose knowledge during the summer. Current arguments in favor of year-round school center more around the fact that it "sounds like a good idea." Have you been able to find any research in this area?

Brigid Schulte: You should talk to Karl Alexander, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, and the folks at Hopkins' Institute for Summer Learning. They have scads of data, going back to 1906, on summer slide. What the studies routinely find is that for middle class kids, they slide a little in math over a long summer, but actually make gains in reading, on average. For students from lower-income backgrounds, they lose both reading and math skills over the summer. Alexander, in a study of 800 Baltimore City students over nearly 20 years, found that by 9th grade, many of these students had fallen three and a half grade levels behind their more advantaged peers.

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Maryland: Just an idea, probably not original: Year-round school has such horrible connotations. I like the use of a "modified calendar" much more, and people are probably more receptive to the idea of a shorter summer break, rather than no summer break as "year-round" seems to imply. I was initially quite put off by the title "The Case for Year-Round School," but after reading the article and doing some additional research, I'm now quite intrigued.

Brigid Schulte: Ah. The importance of semantics! Yes, I agree, year-round does sound awful and institutional. My kids' still have plenty of time to stay in their pajamas all day, hang out at the pool, ride bikes or go watch planes take off at Gravelly Point

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Kimberton, Pa.: How did they get the the teachers union(s) to go along with this? It seems that every time year-round school is considered, the unions are the first to protest?

Brigid Schulte: It was the teachers at our school who first embraced the idea and convinced the parents it was the right way to go.

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Alexandria, Va.: My daughter attends one of the Modified Schedules in Alexandria City and I love it. I'm actually dreading the day when she has to leave and I'm hoping that the other schools will follow suit so she can remain on a modified schedule until she graduates. In fact, as I look for a new home, staying in the school's district is a non-negotiable factor. She returns to school without the mush brain that tends to happen with longer summers.

I am totally against any amusement park having a voice in this matter. It should be between parents and the school boards.

Brigid Schulte: The interesting thing is - some families DO take vacation during the intersessions. Or amusement parks could become part of the solution - a reward for hard work on the last day of intersession perhaps ...

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Arlington, Va.: I am British but have lived and taught here for many years. My husband and daughter are both Americans. The British system gives seven or 8 weeks of school and a week of half-term break. One of the great benefits of year round school is that they allow more frequent breaks....breaks during which the concepts learned have time to gel. My first graders who come in September not knowing how to read, do better in January after the break. Something happens and the learning becomes fixed. In addition, teachers and students are not exhausted at the end of term. Year-round is definitely the way to go.

Brigid Schulte: Teachers often report that discipline referrals often start going up right around the nine week mark as both students and teachers get tired and antsy. With intersession hitting about then, teachers have noticed that both they and the students have a break to look forward to, and the break comes right when they most need it.

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Brigid Schulte: We've run out of time, though there's still so much more to say. Thanks to everyone who joined me in this conversation today!

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Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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