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Year-Round Schooling Rejected

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For many parents, juggling basketball practice, piano lessons, Brownies, and the occasional getaway is hard enough. So when residents of two Florida counties were faced with adding assorted school vacations to the mix, they balked.

At the urging of parents in Orange and Seminole counties, school officials decided to abandon their plan to implement year-round schedules in all of the districts' elementary and middle schools. Instead, the two districts, which together serve 180,000 students, will return next year to more traditional approaches, with a long summer break.

Like a number of other school systems nationwide, the two county districts began experimenting with the year-round calendar believing that students would forget less if school breaks were shorter. But the new school calendars quickly became unpopular with parents. "The disruption of family life was what everyone was complaining about,'' says Dede Schaffner, a spokeswoman for the Seminole County district. "People said it was conceivable that with kids at different schools, you could never have your whole family together.''

So after four years of planning, Seminole County decided to drop the new calendar. Classes there will start next year in August and end in May, with a weeklong fall break the only remnant of the year-round approach. The 53,000-student district now plans to build more schools to relieve overcrowding. In the meantime, however, five over-enrolled schools will continue on a staggered, multitrack calendar.

Many districts that turn to year-round schooling adopt a multitrack calendar because the staggered student vacations allow overcrowded schools to

accommodate more students. Schools on such schedules remain open almost all year long, but all of the students are never in the building at the same

time. Under a single-track year-round calendar, all of the students in a given school attend class and are on vacation at the same time.

In Orange County, the school board's retreat from year-round education will halt the single-track program at 40 elementary schools. Two dozen Orange County schools, however, will continue to use a multitrack plan but only because they are overcrowded and lack adequate classroom space.

Dianne Locker, a year-round specialist for the Orlando-based district, contends that the board's decision does not amount to a wholesale defeat for the year-round concept. Under the district's current plans for the 1996-97 school year, students, she points out, will start school in mid-August and continue through the end of May with a two-week spring break, a two-week Christmas holiday, and possibly a weeklong break at Thanksgiving. "We look at this as giving more time to families,'' Locker said. "There has always been opposition, and what we have ended up with has a shorter summer break than the traditional calendar and everyone having spring break and Christmas break in common.''

Locker, who is president of the National Association for Year-Round Education, acknowledges that the recent troubles in Orange and Seminole counties and resistance in other Florida districts are reminders that large school districts wishing to implement year-round schooling face an uphill battle.

Still, she notes, the concept has flourished in recent years as overcrowded schools in California, Texas, and Florida, in particular, have turned to year-round education as a way to avoid building new classrooms and schools. More recently, many districts have been drawn to the concept thinking that students will forget less over several short breaks than over a long summer break. Research on whether that is actually the case, however, has been mixed, and in recent years, the movement has had a number of stops and starts. One of the most notable setbacks came in 1993, when all but one of the 544 schools in the Los Angeles school district on a single-track calendar voted to abandon the plan. Opposition was especially strong in schools that were not air-conditioned.

Still, the year-round movement is far from dead. Last school year alone, more than 2,200 public schools across the country were on year-round calendars, according to the NAYRE. Officials with the group say they expect that number to increase this year and that schools in Delaware, Nebraska, and New Jersey are experimenting with the concept for the first time.

"We are told by a lot of people who watch the change process that what we are experiencing is normal,'' says Charles Ballinger, executive director of the association. "In Florida, we probably see more concentrated opposition than in any other state, but people are going to struggle with this.'' Ballinger argues that part of the trouble in the two Florida districts stemmed from their rush to implement year-round schedules, including promises to convert all schools to the new calendar.

Indeed, the picture is not the same across the country. School officials in Denver had earmarked $200,000 of last year's failed $30 million bond package to convert a handful of schools to the new schedule. Currently, only one of the district's 107 schools operates on such a calendar. "It is not just a situation where we can't do anything else; we like the idea,'' says Mark Stevens, a spokesman for the 63,000-student district. "We are looking at what this can do for us.''

Meanwhile, school officials in Douglas County, Colo., south of Denver, report that year-round schools are slowly taking over their 22,000-student district. "We went into it because of economics, but it has become a real success story,'' says Jill Fox, a spokeswoman for the district. Eighteen of 22 elementary schools in Douglas County use the year-round calendar, and two of the three middle schools are on board.

"We've heard an overwhelming response from parents, and our staff members say they like it too,'' Fox says. "People tell us they like having a chance to take a family vacation to see the leaves in the fall. And a lot of people say Disneyland is much better in October.''

--Lonnie Harp

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