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So Long, Summer?

The “modified school year” may mean twelve months of classes.

by Jeanne Sager

August 24, 2009

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Arne Duncan wasn’t the new Secretary of the Department of Education long before he started talking big change for America’s kids. The former CEO of the third largest school district in the nation, the Chicago Public Schools, wants to say goodbye to the school year as we know it.

A modified calendar is supposed to make our kids more competitive on a global scale, better able to compete with the likes of India (where the school year runs from April to March) and New Zealand (where law requires schools be open a minimum of at least 380 half-days, so 190 of what we would consider full school days).

The fixation on how they do things beyond our borders is coming straight from the top. Addressing Congress in February, President Barack Obama said, “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite.”

As far as Duncan’s concerned, a good education means more time in school, be it longer days, weeks or the so-called year-round schools (which is a bit of a misnomer – even those schools currently following a “year-round” program incorporate breaks for both students and staff).

He’s building on ideas bandied about by educators for decades. A 1994 report, “Prisoners of Time,” by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, posited changing the traditional school calendar would increase student achievement. In 2003, a University of Missouri study published in the Review of Educational Research pushed for reducing the length of the summer break – based on enhanced student achievement for kids with a year-round calendar.

Considering today’s climate – both literal and economic – with schools looking to cut costs, it would seem less school would be the way to go, not more. But Duncan’s plan has curried favor with administrators and teachers alike, and parents – some, anyway – are climbing on board.

The Oakridge School District in rural Oakridge, Oregon, will begin its first year with a modified calendar in the fall. The kids in Oakridge will no longer attend school five days a week but four. In essence, they’ll attend school fewer days, but with the instructional time of each day spent in the classroom elongated to get better value out of the day of instruction. A “Bronze Medal” award winner from U.S. News and World Report‘s list of the nation’s best high schools, school staff wanted to do even better. So Superintendent Donald Kordosky took a ride to another Oregon district, Corbett, that had won the Gold Medal ranking.

“The superintendent up there was sold on the four-day week as a way to improve education, not save money (among too many other ‘eureka’ ideas to mention here),” Kordosky explained.

Kordosky was suspicious at first, but he couldn’t deny the results. He thought altering the school calendar would mean less time for education – and how could that be good for students? But the research, he said, spoke for itself: decrease in teacher absenteeism (having the teacher in the classroom instead of a sub improves academic performance of students) and student discipline and an increase in student attendance, engagement and academic rigor. Perhaps more importantly, in almost every case Kordosky found, academic performance increased.

Then came the math equations: “Even though we were on a five-day calendar, in reality, we were not,” Kordosky explained. “Of the thirty-six weeks of school [in 2008-09], there were seven weeks with only four days, three weeks with only three and a half days, three weeks with only three days, and three weeks with only two and a half days.”

By bringing every week to four days and increasing the length of the school day, kids in Oakridge will spend more time inside a classroom being actively taught by teachers.

So Long, Summer?

The “modified school year” may mean twelve months of classes.

by Jeanne Sager

August 24, 2009

400x236.jpg

Of course, parents want the best education for their children. But they also want school days to work with their work schedules. Oakridge helped avoid this objection by instituting American Red Cross babysitter training for older students, and they’re keeping a summer break.

Regarded as a long-standing tradition, even by parents who scramble to find daycare for a lengthy ten-week period, summer break has loyal parent supporters. Threats to the traditional school year have spawned groups like Summer Matters, an information clearinghouse launched in 2001 expressly to give parents ammunition to fight the modified calendar. The site is filled with letters to President Obama that proclaim modifying the school calendar “has been tried and failed for more than 100 years.”

Unfailingly, the pleas end with the words “please save our summers.”

Brigid Schulte, an education reporter for the Washington Post, shared her two kids’ extended school year story in the paper this spring. She’s happy, and so are her kids, but when the subject was first broached at a PTA meeting, parents went “ballistic.”

Finally, it came time to vote. “An overwhelming majority of the Spanish-speaking families, aided by a local advocacy group, the Tenants and Workers United, voted to adopt the modified calendar,” recalls Schulte, whose district is largely Hispanic and working class, but also encompasses a middle-class white neighborhood in Northern Virginia. “Twenty middle-class families opted out of the school.”

When the subject was first broached at a PTA meeting, parents went “ballistic.” The racial and economic divide in education isn’t just in Northern Virginia. In 2007, the National Center for Education Statistics report on native born students estimated twelve percent of black teens and eleven percent of Hispanic teens dropped out of our nation’s schools compared to six percent of white students and two percent of Asian students. Census Bureau figures put the number of working mothers with children under eighteen at home at seventy-one percent. Which leaves millions of parents in need of childcare during the lengthy breaks in a traditional school year, millions of children in need of additional educational support.

“Quality Expanded Learning Time programs, do not simply tack on extra hours to the end of the day,” explains Stacey Gilbert, a spokeswoman for Citizen Schools, a Boston-based non-profit that partners with middle schools nationwide to expand the learning day for low-income children across the country. “They redesign an expanded day to bring in more time for many of the things that have been squeezed out of the traditional school day in recent years: more enrichment programs that engage and stimulate a love of learning; hands-on, project-based lessons that give students the opportunity to apply academic concepts to real world situations; and small group instruction that allows educators to better teach diverse levels of learners.”

Even so, some parents worry about the longer school year. A proponent of the change, Schulte was nervous when her son Liam, now ten, started his modified calendar in second grade back in 2004. Now daughter Tess, eight, is also enrolled in the district gaining renown for its special program, and Schulte has a summer break of just five or six weeks with her kids instead of the traditional ten. They go back to school in early August, attend classes for nine weeks, then have a two-week break, during which they can opt for an intersession of fun classes or plain old vacation. Then it’s back for nine weeks, followed by winter break, a week-long intersession, nine more weeks of class, another intersession, and so on until June.

So Long, Summer?

The “modified school year” may mean twelve months of classes.

by Jeanne Sager

August 24, 2009

400x236.jpg

“It has given them an opportunity to learn in a creative, hands-on way, and to see that that really fun and engaging learning is happening in the classroom at their school,” Schulte said of the Alexandria school district’s set-up. “Part of what they’re getting from the modified calendar – creative teaching – is something I’d like all kids to get, regardless of the calendar. And it’s something that teachers are hard-pressed to do in this era of standardized testing.”

But not everyone loves the new calendar. Janette Bereuter, who has a background in education, found the first year of a modified calendar for her son Ethan wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“We felt that this could be an incredible educational opportunity, but haven’t seen any real gains over and above what he had already been doing in his regular school,” the Omaha, Neb. mom said. “I feel like the extended program limits some of the other extra-curricular activities I would like him to participate in such as tennis lessons, golf, music lessons, etc., because the school day is so long and the summer breaks so short.”

The modified year is starting to look like the future. Ethan’s school was special, a test school with acceptance attained through a lottery system. But with his breaks staggered separately from most of his friends, he was lonely. When his friends were out of school while he was in classes, Beureter said he felt left out.

Beureter feels the nine-year-old also missed out on the downtime summer break has traditionally afforded him. “I like that kids have a little time to be a kid, and I don’t know that he has had much of that this year,” she noted.

Educators who argue for modifying the school calendar say that changing the calendar helps change the approach to education so that it’s better at keeping kids’ minds active. And the Obama administration and its advocates insist it’s possible to do that without denying kids their right to a childhood. In any case, the modified year is starting to look like the future. Now that Arne Duncan’s at the wheel, that bus is moving fast; it’s up to parents whether they’re ready to hop aboard.

Article Posted 6 years Ago
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