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Advocates of Year-Round Schooling Shift Focus to Educational Benefits

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LAS VEGAS, NEV.--The presence of Kathy Phillips, a parent from Kansas City, Mo., at meetings in this desert town, marks an important change under way in the movement for year-round schools.

Squeezing more out of tight budgets and stretching the uses of cramped school buildings--the twin crises that longtime year-round schools were founded on--are not overriding concerns for the mother of three school-age children.

Instead, Ms. Phillips came to the meeting of the National Association for Year-Round Education here in search of evidence that doing away with the customary nine-months-on, three-months-off school calendar could lead to fundamental improvements in her children's education.

The local P.T.A. representative is part of a growing tide of parents, educators, and school administrators who surmise that a school year with shorter, more frequent vacations and supplemental activities during the break time would better serve most students.

Still, Ms. Phillips and others taking time here to consider the year-round calendar found a striking contrast.

On one side are glowing reviews from educators who have converted to the new calendars. They report benefits ranging from higher attendance by students and teachers to more innovative curriculum and teaching strategies.

On the other side, however, are reports of staunch community opposition to the idea and only modest research that testifies to its benefits.

Ms. Phillips said she likes the idea of shorter breaks in which young children could enroll in "intersession'' education programs and not have to be put in child care for months during the summer. But she also acknowledged the shockwaves created by such a change.

"We need to see the evidence of the benefits if we're going to consider this,'' Ms. Phillips observed. "I'm not sure it's the right thing to do because there are traditional families out there that want the summertime with their children and don't need day-care options, and we don't have a pressing need for it.''

New Reform Strategy

For longtime leaders of the movement, who were forced to adopt year-round calendars by escalating enrollments, failed bond elections, and tight finances, the meetings of the N.A.Y.R.E. in the past have been swap shops for ideas about the mechanics of calendars, staffing, and ties to community programs.

That operational emphasis, however, was eclipsed at this month's meeting by larger doses of salesmanship for year-round schools as a way of achieving such reform goals as longer school years and new instructional and management schemes.

For the first time in the organization's 24 years, an annual survey of school districts on a year-round schedule this year found that a majority were operating on a single track--which, by keeping all students on the same schedule, saves neither space nor money.

Just three years ago, the survey found only about 25 percent of year-round schools were on the single-track calendar. Unlike overlapping multi-track schedules, which are normally used to save money, single-track calendars are usually adopted to boost student achievement.

Scanty Research

In his annual address to the conference, Charles Ballinger, the executive director of the association, used sharp rhetoric to underscore his call for a focus on educational results rather than housing and financial benefits.

"Year-round education is an idea whose time has come,'' Mr. Ballinger said. "Increasingly, educators are questioning the traditional school calendar. It must give way to something better.''

"What do the opponents have in return for their attempt to block calendar change?'' he asked. "Not much: only a non-educational calendar, a poor way to educate children, adherence to the status quo, and an inability to move toward the 21st century.''

But that stern stance may offer little assurance to educators and parents who are confronting skeptical and sometimes hostile communities. Even year-round-school supporters admit that there is scant research confirming substantial learning gains from a shift to a 12-month school calendar.

A review released by the N.A.Y.R.E. of 13 studies of year-round-education performance since 1985 found 10 that favored the year-round system over traditional schools. Of those, seven found statistically significant learning gains by the year-round students.

But association officials and conference participants said the review offered evidence more of a lack of research over the past decade than of the proven success of year-round calendars.

The studies that are available generally provide mixed results and no overwhelming learning gains. A recent study by researchers at Texas A & M University for a state legislative-policy group showed growing public support but no measurable achievement gains for year-round students.

In a presentation at the N.A.Y.R.E. meeting, Douglas Roby, a school administrator from West Carrollton, Ohio, said his recent research showed some modest math and reading gains by elementary students in the district's lone year-round school.

'Better Delivery of Instruction'

Even for local champions of the movement, proving results is a tough job.

Norman R. Brekke, the superintendent of the Oxnard (Calif.) Elementary School District, said the year-round calendar in place for 17 years in his district has reduced teacher and student burnout, sparked an expansion of staff-development efforts, and led to innovative between-session programs that challenge students and help address learning problems.

But achievement scores have not skyrocketed, although officials are pleased with their upward direction, Mr. Brekke said. Over the past nine years, Oxnard students have made steady gains but have yet to reach the average state-achievement-test scores in most categories.

Administrators of the Orange County, Fla., school district also are focusing on educational benefits as they prepare the Orlando-area public for their plan to move all elementary schools to the new calendar by 1995. The move actually was forced by space and budget concerns, however.

Surveys in the district so far have showed that many of the benefits associated with the year-round schedule have been more perceived than realized.

While teachers and parents believe attendance at schools that have already made the transition is better, for example, in fact it is about the same. The same has been observed about the quality of instruction, leaving officials wary about claiming significant achievement gains.

"People want you to prove that test scores are going to go up, but that's a very difficult thing to do,'' advised L. Dianne Locker, the district's year-round-education specialist.

"We don't go out and tell the community we're going to have higher achievement because that's just digging yourself a hole,'' Ms. Locker said. "We're saying it is better delivery of instruction.''

Changing the Rhythm of Life

Peggy Sorensen, an elementary school principal in the year-round Jordan, Utah, district, pointed to the uncertain relationship between educational improvement and year-round calendars adopted to ease overcrowding or budget problems.

In many areas where overcrowding was the inspiration for year-round schools, Ms. Sorensen contended, school officials have yet to see clear of that problem in order to begin focusing on achievement. In other schools, instruction has not been overhauled to take into account the fact that time no longer needs to be set aside at the beginning of the year to review topics that students may have forgotten over the summer.

"I've thoroughly read the literature, and, unfortunately, it's very skimpy as to whether this is educationally beneficial,'' Ms. Sorensen added.

But Mr. Ballinger said he would stick with his bold claims.

"Even in the very worst reports, there's no one anywhere who has shown that year-round education hurts kids, so I say with confidence your students will do as well as or better than they've been doing,'' he said in an interview. "Even if you only make modest gains each year for 12 years, you have a significant gain in the end, and sometimes people, including researchers, forget that.''

As they wait for more forceful research, leaders of the movement also express confidence that the benefits provided by existing programs will be strong enough and obvious enough to begin winning converts.

"We'll be in this position for a while,'' said Mr. Ballinger, pointing to statistics showing that about 4 percent of the nation's students currently attend schools on a year-round calendar.

"In one sense, we are in front of reforms, and, in another, we've got a long way to go,'' he said. "We're going to be on the cutting edge for 15 years before the changeover occurs in a big way, because we're not just changing the school calendar, we're changing the whole rhythm of American life.''

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