A pioneer in year-round education calls it quits

The Francis Howell school district of St. Charles County [Missouri] voted to end a nearly 40-year tradition of year-round education (YRE) for their elementary schools last month, despite a growing trend around the country toward longer school years. Prior to the decision, elementary students attended in 9-week cycles, with 3-week breaks between cycles and a 6-week summer vacation. Starting in 2011, there will be three breaks throughout the year [lasting about two weeks each] and a 10-week summer vacation.

The new schedule would shave only 5 days off the previous 174-day schedule, but school officials say it will save the district about $1 million. Savings are primarily transportation costs associated with the conflict of schedules between elementary and secondary students, school officials say. Planners were able to make up for the 5-day decrease by adding 5 minutes to each school day.

Parents, teachers, and students were mostly divided on the issue; whether a year-round schedule actually benefits education and improves retention was a subject of debate. Those who approved of the decision primarily liked the idea of a slimmer budget and longer summer vacation. Those who opposed it feared it would harm the high quality of education area students have been enjoying for decades.

These feelings seem to mirror those around the country, though the number of students getting a YRE is growing. In 2008, the Department of Education put the number of students in year-round schools at nearly 2.5 million. That’s up from 1.5 million ten years ago, and the number of YRE students could hit 5 million in 2012.

Long summer breaks are more than just a matter of retained learning, they’re part of  a socioeconomic issue, sayK arl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson of Johns Hopkins University. The authors of Children, School, and Inequality (Social Inequality) have been studying Baltimore students in order to understand the “long-term educational consequences” of varying degrees of summer learning. What they found is hardly surprising, but could explain the growing year-round trend despite conflicted public opinion.

Students in low socioeconomic situations keep pace with their high-income counterparts during a year-round schedule, say the authors.  With longer summer breaks, however, low-income children lose traction and even grind to a halt, while children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds continue gaining ground. Access to summer enrichment programs, camps, and tutoring mean progress for children who have such advantages, while others are left behind.

President Obama has long advocated a combination of longer school days and shorter summer vacations, citing poor performance in American schools and competitive disadvantages. U.S. school years are typically 180 days. A number of countries including Japan, South Korea, and Israel have school years longer than 200 days. To avoid student and teacher burn-out, a year-round schedule with short, regular breaks seems to be the most logical conclusion. Will Francis Howell elementary schools fare better?

The schedule change at Francis Howell is set to begin for the 2011-2012 school year, so it’s difficult to predict how this change will affect students. Some parents and teachers argue that elementary students in the district scored better on Missouri achievement tests [MAP] than the other four districts in St. Charles County. Students in the Francis Howell school district did indeed score better; MAP scores were 12% higher than the state average in 2010 and a 5% increase over last year. These high scores, they say, are attributed to the year-round schedule. Francis Howell Board President Mike Sommer credits the Professional Learning Communities model for high MAP scores, pointing out that scores were down before its adoption a few years ago.

A two-year budget shortfall of $6 million is the reason behind the schedule change, and it raises the larger issue of a struggling U.S. economy. If Alexander, Entwisle, and Steffel are correct, student achievement is based not only on the quality and quantity of the education received but also the socioeconomic levels of students. Based on their findings and in a district facing shortfalls, it is logical to assume that the $1 million savings could come at the cost of educational progress for some students.