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Published in Print: January 1, 2000, as Mark Your Calendar

Mark Your Calendar

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Millennium festivities are a distant memory. Winter weather is menacing much of the country, and students have a bad case of cabin fever. At this time of year, summer vacation beckons with the promise of three months off, a time to rest and rejuvenate.

Not so fast.

In Los Angeles, Chicago, and thousands of districts around the country, the days when schools closed in June and opened again sometime in September are going, going, gone. Without formal state mandates or grand policy debates, the traditional school calendar—which dates to the time when most Americans worked on farms—has in many places become a thing of the past. The long vacation is falling victim to a host of pressures-from concerns about student achievement to crowded classrooms. "Many school districts and independent communities are coming to the conclusion that it's time to re-examine the school calendar," says Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia who has studied the issue.

Researchers have long known that the traditional school schedule doesn't fit with the way children learn. "It's the straitjacket of the calendar," says Karl Alexander, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who has documented vacation learning losses—sometimes known as the "summer slide"—in Baltimore students for several years. "Not all kids learn at the same rate or are at the same level," he adds. "We need to build more flexibility into the system." The three-month summer break is a particular hardship for younger children who are just beginning to build foundational skills and for students whose parents can't afford fancy vacations or summer camp, Alexander says.

A 1994 report by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning recommended extending the school year and, in some cases, keeping schools open all year round. But most of the current tinkering with calendars and schedules is being done by local, not national, officials. "It's been a referendum bubbling up from consumers rather than policymakers," observes Cooper. "It's very community-based."

A growing number of districts in recent years have experimented with nontraditional schedules that break the long vacation into smaller chunks in attempts to eliminate the summer slide. The 17,000-student Dearborn, Michigan, school district, for example, has lengthened the academic year at three schools by 15 days to better educate a diverse enrollment that includes children from Hispanic, Arab- American, Romanian, and Albanian families.

"Reducing the length of time out of schools has helped" raise achievement, says Marlene Lewis, the district's director of elementary education. "And parents and students like all the extra things that the extended school year brings," notably the free, optional classes the schools offer during the breaks, she adds.

Hoping for similar results, Elgin, Illinois, moved three low-performing elementary schools to a year-round schedule, trading in the long summer breaks for shorter, more frequent ones throughout the year. "It's too early to give an assessment, but the staff and the community are pleased with the progress students have been making," says Jim Feuerborn, an area superintendent for the 36,000-student district. "We think this can make a difference."

Concern about the summer slide isn't the only force that's shrinking summer vacation. In recent years, pressure to avoid promoting students to the next grade before they're ready has led to a revival of summer school. Last year, more than half the nation's big-city districts offered remedial summer school for thousands of struggling students, and many of those programs were mandatory. Since 1997, the 430,000-student Chicago school system has required 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders with low test scores to attend a six-week remedial summer school. Last summer, 25,000 students participated. This year, the program will expand to include 1st and 2nd graders, and a new, voluntary, six-week enrichment program is being added for students who are performing at or near grade level but may want extra help.

Chicago's program and others like it may be precursors to what will eventually be year-round schools. Summer school "sets the pace for a year-round calendar," says Steve Jongewaard, a professor of education at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. That, he adds, will be "especially [beneficial] for students who fall below the poverty line, who have special learning and language barriers, and whose parents need help with day care."

For hundreds of other schools—especially in California, Arizona, and Florida—the move to a longer schedule is driven largely by the need for space. In California, for example, nearly 1,000 schools are operating on a staggered, multitrack schedule that keeps classrooms full nearly every week of the year. Most of those schools have moved to the year-round schedule in the last few years as the so-called "baby boom echo" and the state's ambitious class-size reduction plan have hit schools. Managing a multitrack system and hundreds more students puts pressure on administrators, but it eases the space crunch and even alleviates some of the need for new construction.

Charles Ballinger, executive director of the National Association for Year Round Education, a San Diego- based organization that advocates alternative calendars, claims schools that move to year-round schedules because of crowding still reap the educational benefits of the shorter breaks. Other researchers aren't so sure. Ross Mitchell, a research fellow with the California Education Research Cooperative at the University of California at Riverside, says that only the most carefully designed year-round programs stop summer learning losses. Successful programs, he says, drop material for a short vacation and pick up exactly where they left off when they return.

While Mitchell contends there is no clear detrimental effect to extended school years, most of the year- round schools he has studied in California have done "less well than expected." Cautions Johns Hopkins researcher Alexander, "It's important to have realistic expectations." A new calendar can help boost student achievement, he says, but "it's not the so-called silver bullet. Quality has to be overlaid on flexibility."

—Kerry A. White

Vol. 11, Issue 4, Pages 15-16

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