Fla. Parents Win Retreat on Year-Round Schools

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For many parents, juggling basketball practice, piano lessons, Brownies, and the occasional getaway is bad 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 administrators recently backtracked on multiyear plans to implement year-round schedules in all of the districts' elementary and middle schools. Instead, the districts, which together serve 180,000 students, will return next year to a more traditional approach, with a long summer break.

The schools began experimenting with the year-round calendar believing that students forget less over several shorter breaks than over one lengthy break.

But the new school calendars in Orange and Seminole counties became increasingly unpopular with parents over time. And in August, angry parents from school districts across the state packed a legislative hearing on the issue and more recently bent the ears of school boards in the neighboring central Florida counties.

"The disruption of family life was what everyone was complaining about," said Dede Schaffner, a spokeswoman for the Seminole County district, based in Sanford. "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, which is in its second year with all 39 of its middle and elementary schools on a year-round schedule, is changing course. 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 hopes to build more schools to relieve overcrowding, but the lack of classroom space will cause five Seminole schools to continue on a staggered, multitrack calendar until space is made.

More Time for Families

In Orange County, the school board's retreat will halt the single-track year-round program for 40 elementary schools. Under the single-track calendar, all of the students in a given school go to class for 12 weeks, then take a three-week break. (Multitrack calendars accommodate more students by choreographing breaks so that all students are never in the building at the same time.)

Two dozen Orange County schools will continue to use the multitrack plan but only because of a lack of classroom space.

Dianne Locker, the year-round-schools specialist for the 123,000-student, Orlando-based district, contended 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 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," Ms. 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."

Ms. Locker, who also is the president of the National Association for Year-Round Education, acknowledged that the recent troubles in Orange and Seminole counties and resistance in other Florida counties are reminders that large school districts face an uphill battle in maintaining year-round schools.

The year-round concept has flourished in recent years as overcrowded schools in California, Florida, and Texas, in particular, saw the modified calendar as a way to avoid new construction. More recently, many districts have been drawn to the concept thinking that students will forget less in a shorter break than over a long summer break. Research on both fronts has been mixed, and in recent years the movement has had its fits and starts.

In 1993, all but one of the 544 schools in the Los Angeles school district on a single-track calendar voted to abandon the concept. That opposition was especially heavy in areas where schools were not air-conditioned. (See Education Week, June 9, 1993.)

But supporters of a year-round calendar say that the national picture is a mixed one.

Increases Expected

More than 2,200 public schools across the country were on year-round calendars last school year, according to the San Diego-based year-round group. NAYRE officials said that 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," said Charles Ballinger, the 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."

He argued that part of the trouble in the two Florida districts has stemmed from their rush to implement the year-round schedules, including promises to convert all schools to the new calendar.

Efforts in Colorado

Indeed, the picture is not the same across the country. School officials in Denver had earmarked $200,000 of last week's failed $30 million bond package to convert a handful of schools to year-round schedules. One of the district's 107 schools now operates on a year-round calendar.

"It is not just a situation where we can't do anything else; we like the idea," said Mark Stevens, a spokesman for the 63,000-student district. "We are interested in the chance to create real programs between sessions and looking at what this can do for us."

Meanwhile, school officials in Douglas County, Colo., report that year-round schools are slowly taking over their 22,000-student district south of Denver.

"We went into it because of economics, but it has become a real success story," said Jill Fox, a spokeswoman for the district, based in Castlerock. Eighteen of 22 elementary schools in Douglas County use the year-round calendar, and two of the three middle schools are on board. Like most districts, overlapping schedules have kept the system from spreading to high schools.

"We've heard an overwhelming response from parents, and our staff members say they like it too," Ms. Fox said. "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."

Vol. 15, Issue 11

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