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Crowded Houston Schools To Open Year-Round

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Houston--The Janowski Elementary School here hardly seems overcrowded. Spacious green lawns wind around the one-story orange brick building, and several acres of athletic fields extend out behind it.

But the first signs are there: lines for the bathrooms sometimes extend into the halls; the lunch room starts serving at 10:25 A.M. and receives classes at 3-minute intervals; two kindergartens meet in one room and kindergarten enrollment is increasing faster than that in the higher grades.

In the surrounding community of Melrose, the signs are clearer still: small homes built to house one family now house two or three.

Houston, like many other school districts across the nation, faces the problem of coping with a growing number of newly arrived immigrant children, many of them illegal aliens, as well as a high birthrate among its native minority population. District officials propose to solve the overcrowding problem by converting certain schools to year-round operation. The Janowski school is scheduled to be the first; the conversion is planned for July.

In the past, when sections of the city experienced rapid growth, the Houston district built new schools. Over the last 10 years, in fact, the district has spent more than $20 million on new construction, even as enrollment declines forced it to close nearly 10 schools in certain areas.

Now, says Claude Cunningham, assistant to the superintendent, the state's economy is lagging, the district faces a possible deficit, and the prospect of finding funds for extensive new construction is bleak.

So Billy Reagan, the district's superintendent, proposes to turn to the year-round system as a solution. According to Mr. Reagan, it is a way not only to deal with overcrowding but to ease the financial problems facing his district and the state.

Mr. Reagan asserts that the year-round system could save billions of dollars in building funds, based on the district's enrollment projections in the coming decade. "From a pragmatic standpoint, it's going to have to be done," he says, noting that enrollment in Texas schools is expected to increase by about 90 percent over the next 10 years.

Mr. Reagan says he does not intend to convert all 240 schools in the district to year-round schedules. He plans to make the changeover only in about 50 schools that enroll predominantly immigrant children who do not speak English proficiently. The change will be gradual and will only take place if the pilot project at Janowski works well, he says. Janowski's enrollment is about 75 percent Hispanic, 21 percent white, 4 percent black and Asian.

Massive Influxes of Immigrants

Houston will not be the first school district to use year-round schools to deal with massive influxes of newly-arrived immigrants and other minority children. In July 1980, Los Angeles became the first major city to use the system extensively to cope with large numbers of low-income, non-English-speaking immigrants--most of them from Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries in political turmoil.

Elsewhere in California, Oakland's school district converted an inner-city elementary school to a year-round schedule last month and plans to switch a second school next fall. The Fresno, Santa Ana, and Montebello districts--all with heavy immigrant and minority enrollments--have also partially switched to year-round schedules, and Houston officials say they are receiving inquiries about their plans from two nearby districts.

Los Angeles--which has the most extensive year-round operation in the nation--did not voluntarily choose the system, but adopted it to comply with an order stemming from a desegregation lawsuit, Crawford v. Board of Education of the City of Los Angeles.

Decisions in the 20-year-old case gradually eliminated many options for dealing with overcrowding, and the school system finally turned to year-round schools. In 1970, a judge banned new construction and renovation of schools in certain sections of the city on the grounds that the improvements would foster more segregated schools. (The building ban has since been lifted.)

With segregation still on the increase, in 1979 the court ordered mandatory busing between clusters of black, Hispanic, and white schools. But the community strongly opposed the order. Thousands of white students immediately transferred to private schools, and a year later state voters ratified a constitutional amendment, Proposition 1, banning busing except in instances of intentional segregation.

As Proposition 1 was being challenged in court, the district was ordered to find a method, other than busing, to improve the overcrowding at the minority schools. School officials responded with the idea for the year-round system. Thirty-nine schools were converted in 1980, despite strong community protest; in 1981, 52 more were changed. Currently, 124,000 students--one fourth of the district's enrollment--are in year-round schools.

About 90 percent of these schools are predominantly Hispanic, and the students are a fairly balanced mix of new immigrants and older arrivals, said Santiago Jackson, administrator of the district's Overcrowded Schools Task Force.

The district uses a "multi-track" year-round system that increases the capacity of each school by at least one-third because it staggers vacation schedules. While one track of students is on vacation, other tracks use their rooms. Typical schedules give students frequent and short vacations of 15 to 40 days.

Each track has its own set of teachers, as if it were a separate school; sometimes the courses offered in each track vary somewhat because a school may not have three physics teachers or three photography teachers. Most school facilities are in use 51 weeks of the year--excluding Christmas week.

Until the Los Angeles experience, year-round, multi-track schools were generally used in the suburbs to cope with sudden migrations of white, middle-class children from the cities, according to experts. "Now, that whole picture may be changing; year-round may be coming into the city," says Charles E. Ballinger, executive secretary of the National Council on Year-Round Education, a San Diego-based organization.

Harry Handler, superintendent of Los Angeles schools, says the strategy has served the district well, although he would have preferred to build new schools. "Year-round has been an effective tool for overcrowding," he says, adding that he expects that his district will be relying on it for a long time to come.

A Constitutional Violation

But the use of year-round schools mainly for Hispanic and new immigrant children disturbs some educators and civil-rights advocates. "It may well be a constitutional violation, if Hispanic kids are forced to go to year-round schools and others are not," says Gary Orfield, a political scientist and specialist in school desegregation at the University of Chicago. "If it's a good system, it ought to be used by everyone."

"The courts may have to decide whether the burden of overcrowding will be carried principally by one ethnic group," says Carlos Haro, director of research for the Chicano Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. The year-round system reduces the range of academic offerings, disrupts family life, and causes a more rapid deterioration of school facilities, he says.

Norma Cantu, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a San Antonio-based Hispanic-advocacy group, says her organization is reserving judgment about the Houston project. "We'll be asking if they are applying the same standards from school to school. We'll be looking out for the best interests of the children," she says.

Officials in Los Angeles say they recognize that the use of year-round schools almost solely for immigrant and lower-income minority families invites charges of discrimination. When the first changeover occurred in 1980, "there was a feeling that it was another type of segregation," says Jerry Halverson, general counsel and assistant superintendent for the Los Angeles schools.

But Mr. Halverson points out that Los Angeles had almost no alternative. The district court had banned new construction and even the installation of portable classrooms. "The judge wouldn't even let us move a bungalow," he said. The idea of exchanging students with adjacent districts was also futile, he added, because those districts were similarly overcrowded.

More Extensive Courses

The move by the Houston district's superintendent is voluntary, however, and he predicts that any charges of discrimination it incurs will be because the program is good. "I think the discrimination charges will come from the more affluent community," Mr. Reagan says. These groups may claim that the year-round schools are preferable because they offer more extensive remedial and enrichment courses, he said.

Some argue that year-round use of existing schools is a reasonable response to overcrowding caused by the new wave of immigrant children, because the influxes usually are temporary and last less than ten years. "Can districts justify building new schools for temporary population explosions?" Mr. Ballinger of the San Diego center asks.

Furthermore, Houston officials say, immigrants tend to be mobile, moving from one community to another, thus complicating any plans for new construction. For example, in the Melrose area where Houston will try out its first pilot project, the immigrant families come and go rapidly, says Rita Poimbeauf, the Janowski school's principal.

"We're the first community they hit when they come into Houston," she says. "Perhaps it's because we're so close to [Interstate 45]. They stop over here. Children check in and out of school three or four times a year. It's a strange mobility situation."

Furthermore, the waves of immigrants are coming so fast that there is no time to construct schools for them, Mr. Handler points out. It would cost $300 million and take five years to build enough schools to eliminate the overcrowding in the Los Angeles district, he says.

Nor are taxpayers in the mood to vote money for new schools, the Houston and Los Angeles superintendents point out, especially when many schools in each district are half-empty or closed. Californians expressed their resistance in the vote on Proposition 13 in 1978, and Texans are fighting the concept of contributing state funds to the education of illegal aliens.

But supporters of the year-round system say it offers immigrant children important educational advantages. Mr. Ballinger says he believes that the year-round approach is especially appropriate for immigrant children trying to learn English because it permits drills and repetition without the interruption of a three-month vacation.

Restructuring the School

Mr. Reagan also regards the system as "a move toward restructuring the American school to be more competitive." The special advantage it offers is the shorter vacations, he says. Using these for more instruction time is the first step toward catching up with countries like Japan, he contends.

In fact, no one really knows what the academic effects of year-round education are on immigrant and minority children.

The Los Angeles district has allotted neither the time nor the money to do extensive comparative testing on such children. Based on the results of sporadic tests administered in the 1970's, officials simply say: "We know it doesn't hurt kids."

A 1978 federally sponsored study of the Parajo Valley Unified School District, a small district near San Francisco, seems to support that view. The study compared the achievement levels of students in both traditional and year-round schools over a one-year period and found no difference.

Alan Gershman, a member of the Los Angeles school board, says he has asked the administration to do some testing, but he admits that he is not eager to receive the results. "What are we going to do if the data we get back don't show this is educationally sound?" he asks. "Right now, we've got to deal with the problem of youngsters coming in here every day in waves."

Despite his apparent optimism, the Houston superintendent is moving his year-round plan forward with caution. Mr. Reagan's first step in January was to send a selected group of administrators and teachers to Los Angeles to see how year-round schools are working there. Those who went reported that the trip was a sobering experience. The year-round system, in practice, they said, raised more questions and solved fewer problems than they had expected.

In a series of staff reports issued after their return, they noted many potential problems, including the following:

No one could produce proof of academic benefits in the system. "There are no statistics or test scores available to show that the 12-month concept is better than traditional schools," they said.

There are numerous types of year-round schedules; they can have 15-day, 20-day, 30-day, or 40-day vacations. Unless all schools select the same calendar, there can be massive scheduling problems, which restrict transfers of students and teachers between schools and disrupt family life. The Los Angeles schools operate on eight different schedules with "no two starting or stopping at the same time."

The system opens up complex new areas in teacher-management relations. Teachers can greatly increase their salaries by teaching on other tracks during their vacations, but "burnout" can become a problem. "Amazingly, there are some teachers who literally teach all year round without any vacation except for Christmas and Easter," one teacher reported.

Parental involvement and cooperation are essential and take more time than the three months' notice--or less--that most Los Angeles parents were given of the changeover there. "Unless parent participation occurs at an early stage ..., year-round can be perceived as punitive for one geographic or ethnic segment of the community," the reports said.

There are staff "inconveniences" inherent in the system. For example, certain "roving" teachers and students "are required to change classrooms every few weeks," in order to utilize classrooms emptied by those going out on vacations.

Yet the Houston visitors were also impressed by what they described as the commitment and cheer of the Los Angeles staff. "We felt a lot of hard work went into it and it was very well organized," says Lydia Cordova, an elementary-school principal who went on the trip. "It was hard on the administrators. They were pretty open with us about the problems we would encounter. Based on their resources, they're doing the very best they can."

Houston administrators say they intend to learn from the Los Angeles experience and, if possible, to avoid the worst of that district's problems. They have already set guidelines for their pilot project. They have selected one year-round calender with 60-day semesters and 20-day vacations; they say the other 50 schools that may switch in the future must adopt it, too, in order to facilitate transfers and administrative work.

Costs Not Yet Determined

They also plan to test children regularly, to discourage extensive substitute teaching, and to use Chapter 1 and state compensatory money to fund remedial and enrichment courses during vacations. Costs for these programs have not yet been determined, but the district will expect a higher cost-per-pupil at Janowski once the year-round system is launched, officials said.

The Houston district is working to win parental and community approval for the plan. A 12-minute film, called "Y.R.S.-Truly" (depicting year-round Los Angeles schools in operation), is shown at evening meetings to introduce parents to the concept. And red-and-white bumper stickers reading--"Janowski Year Around School--Where Learning Never Stops," are stacked on school tables and shelves.

A bill amending state education law to permit year-round school administration has already passed in the House and has been reported out of committee in the Senate, a legislative clerk said.

If all goes as expected, Janowski's doors will open for the first day of school on July 13, when three tracks will begin classes, said the school's principal. The fourth will begin in August. Many teachers at the school say they are enthusiastic about the pilot project, and only one has requested a transfer from the school because of the new schedule.

Most say they believe the shorter vacations will help the largely Hispanic student body to learn better. "They'll come back after breaks and they'll tell the teacher what page to turn to," predicts one teacher.

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