Sorry kids, but year-round school is gaining on you In other states, it's been saving money, helping test scores and altering lives

August 30, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

At a time when school districts need millions to build and renovate schools, officials look at empty classrooms each summer and wonder why.

More and more often, schools nationwide fill those seats by turning to a year-round operation.

"Year-round schooling is the fastest moving reform in the country as far as delivery of education is concerned," says Sam Houston, superintendent in Mooresville, N.C. "The things you can do with the flexible scheduling it provides, you just can't do on a traditional calendar."

But to be successful, schools must overcome resistance from students who lose a traditional summer break, parents who wonder how and when to plan day care and the family's vacation and teachers who often must share classrooms and forgo annual summer jobs.

Year-round schooling is "not an educational issue," says Dianne Locker, a program specialist in the Orange County, Fla., public school system in Orlando, where all 98 elementary schools are to converted by 1995. "It's an emotional issue. The school district needs to be prepared for it."

In Maryland, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is promoting year-round schooling as a way to slow -- or even stop -- the costly construction of new schools while freeing up funds to renovate older schools. In Howard County, where school opens today, and Baltimore County, administrators are studying the idea.

Crowded schools and tight budgets are projected to become worse throughout the state, where officials expect 150,000 more students in public schools by 2003. That would bring the total to 885,000 students.

School systems across Maryland now cope by overloading their classrooms, using portable classrooms or altering attendance boundaries, often angering parents and students.

Last year, more than 1.5 million students in 26 states attended about 2,000 year-round public schools -- up from 1,650 schools a year ago and 425 schools seven years ago, according to the San Diego-based National Association for Year-Round Education. This year, five additional states will have some schools on a year-round schedule.

"The nine-month school calendar was never designed for education in the first place," says Charles Ballinger, the association's executive director. "It was designed to aid the agricultural industry of the past century. All schools in the United States have been trying to educate students on a noneducation calendar."

Not all communities find year-round schooling to be a panacea. Officials in Albuquerque, N.M., and Los Angeles scaled back year-round programs last year after parents complained about scheduling conflicts and students going to schools with no air conditioning.

Steamy summer mornings find 10-year-old Jamey Dempsey standing at a Carey, N.C., bus stop with a book bag slung over his back, watching friends go biking by. "At first, everybody's going to think it's really weird when you're in school and everyone's going to play street hockey," he said. "But it's real good. It's not that crowded and it's fun."

The reason that Jamey's school is not crowded is because it operates on what is called a "multitrack" system in which all students go to school for nine weeks and have three-week breaks -- at staggered intervals.

To understand how a multitrack system works, envision a schedule with four groups of students who span all the grades in the school. The first three "tracks" -- A, B and C -- start school in mid-July. At the end of a three-week period, track A goes on a three-week break, during which time track D begins its term.

When track A returns to school three weeks later, track B goes on break so track A can have classroom space. During this time, tracks A, C and D are in session.

Three weeks pass and track C goes on break, allowing track B's return -- and so on, until each track has completed nine weeks of school and three weeks of break. Then, the cycle repeats itself.

A multitrack system forces students and teachers to rotate classrooms. This can cause problems for teachers who have to move their instructional materials.

All students are scheduled to be in school for the same number of days. They get winter and spring holiday vacations, some longer than three weeks, some shorter, depending on which track they are on, but averaging three weeks.

Not all schools turn year-round to alleviate crowding.

Orlando's Rock Lake Elementary School, where 75 percent of students come from low-income families, put all students on the same 12-month schedule to improve learning. The idea is that students without the long summer break learn better and retain more material. Locally, West Baltimore's Robert W. Coleman Elementary School is working on converting to a year-round calendar by next July.

Where it works I

In Wake County, N.C., school officials are turning students away who want to enroll in the voluntary year-round elementary and middle school programs. Like many school systems, Wake County was having a population boom.

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