School & District Management

Quietly, the School Calendar Evolves

By Kerry A. White — October 27, 1999 7 min read

Early in August, when amusement parks, shopping malls, and swimming pools were teeming with children, students at three Dearborn, Mich., elementary schools were well into the school year.

The Detroit suburb--best known as the home of the Ford Motor Co.--has long struggled to educate a diverse enrollment that includes children from Hispanic, Arab-American, Romanian, and Albanian families. To help those students learn more, and retain that knowledge, the 17,000-student district has lengthened the academic year at the three schools by 15 days.

For teachers and students, the once-luxurious three-month summer break has dwindled to a little over two. But administrators say learning and retention--especially of the English language--is way up.

In Dearborn, Los Angeles, Chicago, and thousands of schools around the country, the days when schools closed in June and opened again sometime in September are gone. Without formal state mandates or grand policy debates, the traditional school calendar--which dates to the times when most Americans worked on farms--has in many places become largely a thing of the past.

The long vacation has fallen victim to a host of pressures--from concerns about student achievement to crowded classrooms to expanded views of a school’s role in the community.

“Many school districts and independent communities are coming to the conclusion that it’s time to re-examine the school calendar,” said Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has studied the issue.


Researchers have long known, and educators have lamented, the fact that the traditional, agrarian-based school calendar doesn’t fit with the way children learn. “It’s the straitjacket of the calendar,” said Karl Alexander, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who has documented summer learning losses in Baltimore students for several years.

“Not all kids learn at the same rate or are at the same level,” he added. “We need to build more flexibility into the system.”

He says 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.

A growing number of districts in recent years have experimented with nontraditional schedules that break the summer vacation into smaller chunks in attempts to eliminate what educators and researchers have dubbed “the summer slide.”

In Dearborn, the new schedule seems to be working.

“Reducing the length of time out of schools has helped” raise achievement, said 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, Ms. Lewis added.

Hoping for similar results, the Elgin, Ill., schools 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,” said Jim P. Feuerborn, an area superintendent for the 36,000-student district. “We think this can make a difference.”

Back to Summer School

Concern about the summer slide isn’t the only force, however, 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.

This year, more than half the nation’s big-city districts--involving hundreds of thousands of students--were offering remedial summer school for students at risk of failing, 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. This past summer, some 25,000 students participated.

Next summer, 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.

Low performers are also required, beginning this school year, to attend after-school tutorial sessions. And many schools remain open on weekends for tutoring and adult education.

The growth in these types of programs, experts say, is in many ways a precursor to what will eventually be year-round schools.

Summer school “sets the pace for a year-round calendar,” said Steve Jongewaard, a professor of education at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. 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.”

Cozette M. Buckney, the chief education officer in the Chicago district, agrees.

“We used to take a one-size-fits-all approach to learning,” she said. Many high schools, and nearly all elementary and middle schools, she explained, used to close shortly after school let out, and they would remain closed through weekends and summers.

“But now we are a changed system,” she said. “We know that students learn in different ways and at different paces, and we have programs and supports in place to meet all sorts of individual learning needs.”

Space Crunch

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, multi-track schedule that keeps some students and teachers in classrooms nearly every week of the year.

Most of those schools have moved to the year-round schedule in the last few years, explained Duwayne Brooks, who oversees plans for school facilities for the state education department, as the so-called “baby boom echo” and calls for class size reduction have hit schools.

“There are administrative negatives” to the multi-track schedule, he noted, as managing hundreds more students puts more pressure on administrators. But the bottom line for most districts who choose the year-round schedule, he said, is that it accommodates more students immediately, and does away with the some of the need for new construction.

Though many schools have moved to such a schedule because of crowding, they are also reaping the educational benefits of the shorter breaks, said Charles Ballinger, the executive director of the National Association for Year Round Education, a San Diego-based group that advocates alternative school schedules.

Need for Research

Mr. Ballinger says that more than 3,000 public schools are operating under a year-round schedule this school year. That figure does not include districts that have added extensive remedial summer school and enrichment programs.

“Schools want the learning benefits of a year-round calendar,” Mr. Ballinger said.

But the exact nature of those benefits isn’t fully known, some researchers say.

Ross Mitchell, a research fellow with the California Education Research Cooperative at the University of California, Riverside, says that only the most carefully designed year-round programs stop a summer learning loss. He described successful programs as ones where students drop material for a short vacation and pick up exactly where they left off when they return.

While “it looks like there’s no clear detrimental effect” to extended school years, he said, most of the year-round schools he has studied in California have done “less well than expected.”

“It’s important to have realistic expectations,” added Mr. Alexander of Johns Hopkins. While a new calendar, when adopted along with other school improvement efforts, can help boost student achievement, “it’s not the so-called silver bullet. Quality has to be overlaid on flexibility.”

Much of the recent focus on the shortcomings of the calendar stems from a 1994 report by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. The federally sponsored panel concluded that the six-hour school day and 180-day school year “should be relegated to museums as an exhibit of our education past.”

The commission called for an extended school year and more time during the school day spent on core academic subjects. Some schools in every district, the panel concluded, should remain open the entire school year.

Though many policymakers agreed with the panel’s findings, little national momentum to change school schedules followed its release.

Instead, most of the current tinkering with calendars and schedules is taking place at the local level.

“It’s been a referendum bubbling up from consumers rather than policymakers,” Mr. Cooper of the University of Missouri said. “It’s very community-based.”

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