When the basic public school calendar was developed years ago, it revolved around agriculture. Children needed the summers off to work on the family farm. Since then, this antiquated piece of American history has remained in place for most of the country.
The exception is California and its neighbors, many of whom have switched to Year-Round Education (YRE). Here’s how it works: There are four rotating instructional periods of nine weeks. Three-fourths of the students attend school during this time while the other fourth are off on intersession. Students still spend 180 days in school; it’s just that these days are realigned.
Some administrators, teachers, parents, and children like this new calendar. They enjoy the mini-vacations throughout the year. “We can go away at odd times, and take advantage of bargain fares,” says one dad.
A middle-school teacher talks about the relief he feels at not having to spend all of September on review after what’s known as the Summer Slide. He describes how his students come back after their three-week intersession, refreshed, excited and with no loss of learning. Some find the shorter breaks rejuvenating.
Administrators and school boards love the economy of keeping schools open, claiming it saves millions of dollars in new construction costs, reduces overcrowding, and allows for smaller classes and staffing flexibility. They appreciate being able to multi-track classrooms, computer labs, libraries, gymnasiums, art studios, and media resources.
Anne, a parent, doesn’t share these thoughts. She shakes her head vehemently when talking about YRE. “I don’t want my kids robbed of those dreamy summer vacation days. They’ve only one childhood. It shouldn’t be spent being judged and watched — they’ll get enough of that once they leave school.”
“All year my boys look forward going to sleepaway camp,” says a parent. “This won’t happen if our district switches to this plan.”
Another problem is seasonal summer jobs. “Who will hire a lifeguard, counselor or amusement park worker for just three weeks?” asks a father from Greenwich.
One mother appreciates seeing signs of boredom in her daughter the week before school starts. “It builds her anticipation for a new start, new classmates, new teacher, new school supplies and new clothes,” she explains.
Parents whose kids are in the year-round program claim it to be a major inconvenience when siblings and neighborhood kids are on different tracks. “It just scrambles up family life,” one mother says. Finding adequate childcare for just three weeks is another concern.
One survey claims that between 60% to 90% of teachers currently teaching year-round prefer it, but teachers interviewed in Westchester and Fairfield counties think differently. Their concerns are numerous: “Isn’t nine weeks too long to be in school without a break? Will we be teaching to the calendar, forcing to end units every nine weeks? Will the three-week intersessions be enough time for us to rest and recharge? Will it become a seniority issue as to who teaches which tracks? What will happen to college courses and workshops we take every summer? Many of us supplement our income during the summers. We can’t get a job for just three weeks.”
Administrators face different challenges. One is never having all their staff on campus at one time for faculty meetings and professional development. Scheduling can be another hassle. Allison teaches third grade in a YRE school in North Carolina. “I’m a Rover,” she says. “No room is my classroom. Every time I track out, I must take all my materials and supplies and place them on a cart in storage, because I’ll be in a different room when my three-week intersession is over. It’s like breaking down and setting up my room four times a year, rather than one.”
School boards have studied this issue from a financial angle. “Unless new construction is needed, we don’t see significant savings,” says one board member. “We see additional costs: all of our schools will have to be air-conditioned, buses must run year-round, and buildings will never be empty for needed cleaning and maintenance.”
A few districts who have tried YRE have switched back to the summer-off calendar. “It didn’t improve academic performance enough,” says a Utah school superintendent. “We gave up trying to win the cooperation of the parents. It was too hard to fight tradition.”
While YRE may work for elementary school students, major difficulties arise for those in middle and high school. Trying to arrange sports schedules, band, orchestra, yearbook, school plays, graduation, and proms can become complicated. If grades are not available for college transcripts, these students are at a disadvantage.
It’s possible that future generations may scoff at kids who have free summers. Going to school year-round may have become the norm by then, but it may not.