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At least half a million elementary-school children are expected to particpate next week in a national teleconference commemorating the fifth anniversary of the accident that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger.

The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, killing the spacecraft's seven-member crew, including Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher.

The free, satellite-delivered broadcast, which will air on the anniversary of the tragedy, is being produced by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, an organization founded by the astronauts' families to continue the mission's aim of improving education in mathematics and the sciences.

The first half of the two-hour teleconference, which is aimed at students in grades 4 through 8, will contain a 73-second commemoration of the doomed flight.

It will also feature Kathie Scobee-Krause, the daughter of Dick Scobee, the Challenger's commander, and relatives of the shuttle's crew discussing the mission of the Challenger Center as well as their memories of the accident.

The second half of the broadcast, called "Suited for Space," will teach children6about the importance of the Earth's ecosystem, using the design of a spacesuit to illustrate the concept of a closed system.

That segment--which will feature Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, and Col. Fred Gregory, a space-shuttle pilot--will be followed by a 20-minute interactive teleconference.

Although it has no plans of its own to mark the anniversary of the disaster, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is cooperating with the Challenger Center to produce the teleconference, a spokesman said.

Schools may register for the teleconference by calling the Challenger Center at (703) 683-9740.

A growing number of schools are switching to year-round schedules, according to a survey by the National Association for Year-Round Education.

In a report released last week, the organization said that 240 schools had switched from traditional to year-round schedules for the 1990-91 school year, a 38 percent increase. In the current school year, a total of 736,000 students in 872 schools are on the schedule, usually nine-week blocks of classes separated by three-week breaks, up from 525,000 students in 632 schools during the 1989-90 school year.

Charles Ballinger, executive director of the association, cited student population growth as well as limited financial resources as factors in the increase.

"There is a growing number of educators who are doubting the wisdom of the conventional school year," Mr. Ballinger said.

Based on school boards' plans to implement year-round schedules next year, an estimated 1 million students will be attending 1,200 year-round schools during the 1991-92 school year, Mr. Ballinger predicted.

Most of the new year-round schools are in Western states; California, with 211 new schools, had the largest increase. Also switching to year-round schedules were schools in Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and Florida.

Copies of the association's annual directory, which includes statistical and contact information on participating districts, are available for $10 each from the National Association for Year-Round Education, 6401 Linda Vista Rd., San Diego, Calif. 92111.

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