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Summertime Blues

Los Angeles, bulging at the seams and short on money, becomes the largest district to shift to year-round schooling

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It's a lament familiar to a teacher's ear--as old as the one-room schoolhouse, more common than a junior high scuffle: Summer vacation is too short. In Los Angeles, the complaint will soon have substance.

The Los Angeles Board of Education, revisiting one of its most resilient and controversial issues, voted in February to implement a year-round schedule for the entire district. Beginning in July 1991, two separate six-week vacations--one from July to mid-August, the other just after Christmas--will replace the traditional three-month summer break for most students.

Changing the entire district's schedule "will not be easy," Board President Jackie Goldberg acknowledges. "But we've run out of alternatives. We've used every nook and cranny; we don't have any place to put the kids."

Under the year-round plan, however, children might attend school on staggered schedules, effectively reducing the number of students on the rolls at any given time.

The board's most recent vote on the year-round calendar is its fourth such vote in five years. First broached by school officials in the fall of 1985, the idea of converting to a year-round schedule has risen or fallen in the nation's second-largest school system on the basis of various logistical problems it promises to relieve--or create.

They are problems that a number of other districts are studying closely this year. And while the three-month summer recess may not be ready to go the way of the McGuffey Reader quite yet, year-round schooling is gaining more serious consideration--especially in a time of tight budgets and growing school-age populations.

In January, the Texas Board of Education endorsed a policy encouraging schools to convert to a year-round calendar. California Governor George Deukmejian has pledged to provide incentives to districts that adopt a year-round program. Utah Governor Norman Bangerter supports the concept as well.

Nationwide, there are about 630 year-round schools enrolling some 524,000 students, says Charles Ballinger of the National Association for Year-Round Education.

"Year-round education is an idea which has come of age," he says. "I think we'll see some kind of yearround education in most of America's schools by the turn of the century.''

In Los Angeles, all public schools must adopt a year-round schedule by July 1991. The city school board made its final vote in the early morning hours, approving by a vote of 5 to 2 a comprehensive plan to relieve overcrowding in the district.

More than 100 of the district's 600-plus schools already are on yearround schedules, accounting for about 20 percent of the district's enrollment. In 1987, the board voted to convert the entire district to such a schedule by 1989, but later scuttled that plan after parental outcry.

This time, board members say, their decision will last.

And Cecelia Mansfield, president of one of the district's parent-teacher organizations, called the decision fair. "Although no one's completely happy with the result, it's a beginning,'' she says. "I think it's something we can go forward with."

Under the board's 19-point plan, every school in the district must adopt a "90/30" calendar: two 18-week (90-day) semesters, with six weeks (30 days) off in between.

One part of the district's new plan orders 109 overcrowded elementary schools to increase their capacity by 23 percent next July. To do so, they must choose one of several options: convert to a staggered year-round schedule; increase class size; add portable classrooms; or implement any combination of these solutions.

Depending on its situation, a school could use a single-track calendar-- putting all its students on the same schedule--or a multitrack calendar, in which students' schedules are staggered to allow for higher enrollment.

Although it is by far the largest, Los Angeles is not the country's only district moving to a year-round schedule. Cities and towns in Florida, Idaho, Washington, Utah, and New Mexico have adopted or will soon adopt a year-round calendar, according to Ballinger.

Utah--which has the fastest-growing school-age population in the nation--has the highest percentage of year-round schools in the nation, he says. California has the most.

In California and elsewhere, proponents of year-round schools often argue their case in terms of resources-- or lack thereof. California is expected to gain about 160,000 students per year over the next six years, says Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig.

"We're talking huge growth here," says Honig. "If we're going to have that much construction, it only makes sense to get the maximum use out of the buildings."

In the debate over year-round schooling in Los Angeles, officials say they framed their argument in much the same way. "Our argument [was] primarily driven by crowding," says Gordon Wohlers, who is in charge of classroom space for the district.

But some board members now say they regret this strategy. "One of the reasons we had so much resistance ...is because we [didn't] talk enough about the instructional purposes" of year-round schools, says Goldberg. That is, how would keeping the schools open every day help children become better students? Parents and taxpayers, Goldberg suspects, might have been more supportive if they had understood the potential academic benefits of year-round instruction.

Indeed, some researchers, such as those with the Philadelphia-based nonprofit group Public/Private Ventures, have documented what they call a "summer slippage" academically among children in at-risk populations. Because these children lack home and community sources for reinforcing what they have learned in school, the researchers report, they lose much of the year's achievement over the long summer break.

But others, such as United Teachers of Los Angeles President Wayne Johnson, say the instructional advantages of year-round schools--at least in Los Angeles--have never been adequately proven. The union took no official position in the debate.

"It really doesn't make that much difference [whether students attend year-round schools]," he says. Student achievement scores are not higher in areas of the district where year-round schools are in operation, he points out.

In Utah, however, Professor Adrian Van Mondfrans of Brigham Young University recently completed a study that showed students on a year-round calendar made greater gains on test scores than did those on a traditional schedule.

And administrators in Los Angeles offer anecdotal evidence that year-round education is good for teachers, too.

"The teachers here love it," says Mona Kantor, principal of the year-round Arlington Heights Elementary School in central Los Angeles. "They get their breaks just when they are most needed."

In Orange County, Fla., where three year-round schools are scheduled to open this summer, the teachers' union formed a task force to study other year-round systems.

"Initially, the teachers were generally negative," says George Segna, executive director of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association. "But the more they learned about it, the more positive they became." They found that year-round schooling doesn't add days to the school calendar, he says, and that most teachers in year-round schools enjoy the pace of the schedule.

Like teachers, many parents and public officials resist the notion of year-round schools.

In Los Angeles, parents raised objections to the yearround program on several grounds: Many schools lack air-conditioning. Some parents with children in several schools do not want them on different schedules. Families have questions about the availability of child-care services.

"There are just a lot of unknowns," says Mansfield, the PTA president.

Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, agrees. Those "What I Did on My Summer Vacation'' writing assignments aren't yet obsolete, he notes.

To gain in popularity, he says, year-round schooling must earn a stronger constituency. "The question is, do the parents who like it, like it enough to fight for it against the highly organized parents who don't? We'll just have to wait and see."

--Michael Newman, Education Week

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