Save the Summers for Kids

February 26, 1994|By ANDREW RATNER

Item: Gov. William Donald Schaefer has awarded $400,000 to six school systems to develop year-round school programs. Memo to the governor and General Assembly: Year-round schooling is a loser. Abandon the effort.

Understandably, many in government view year-round schooling as a logical solution to the problem of too many students and not enough classrooms. Divide the students, send them to school in shifts throughout the year and you won't have to build as many new schools. But look closer, and you'll discover cracks in the foundation.

Supporters of year-round schooling tout it as an emerging trend. They point to the 1.4 million public- and private-school students now involved in year-round education in nearly 2,000 schools nationwide.

Impressive? Not really.

Those 1.4 million pupils are 3.5 percent of the student population in the country. By comparison, home schooling -- which most people would consider a fringe -- involves anywhere from 1 to 2.5 percent of student population, not much less than year-round schooling.

Where are year-round schools located? California has half of them. Texas has 220. Florida, 105. Utah, 90. Those temperate-climate states have more than two-thirds of the nation's year-round schools. What about in states nearer Maryland? Virginia has one. Pennsylvania, none. New York, none. New Jersey, none. In all New England, there's one -- in Connecticut. Some of these states, including Maryland, have been among the most innovative and experimental in education policy, yet none of them is flocking to year-round schooling.

It won't be long before they do, the supporters contend, %J because the educational benefits are undeniable. In fact, the supporters' own data proves anything but.

According to the National Association for Year-Round Schools, an organization based in sunny San Diego, a 1993 report concluded that studies of year-round schooling from a decade or more ago showed no benefits over the traditional nine-month calendar. As for more recent evaluations, seven of 13 studies done since 1985 found significant improvements in year-round scores compared with traditional-calendar programs; the other six studies did not. Basically, a toss-up. And in one of the studies that favored year-round schools, inter-session study was offered the year-round students so they had more school days than the comparison group on the traditional calendar.

That's important: the proposal for year-round schools in Maryland would not add to the current 180-day system; it would just alter the schedule.

There are two types of year-round schools. One is ''single-track,'' in which all students attend school at the same time, with several small vacations sprinkled over 12 months instead of a long summer vacation. The sole purpose for a single-track calendar is for educational gain.

The other system, the one being considered here, is ''multi-track.'' It is done to save money in places where the politicians lack the will to adequately fund the school infrastructure. No doubt, many taxpayers now complaining about school spending were content in the 1970s when Gov. Marvin Mandel and the legislature spent $1 billion over five years on school construction when their children were in school.

We haven't even gotten into the cost of air-conditioning all the schools, or the effect on seasonal industries, such as Ocean City. ''It does not save the money it purports to,'' says Richard Johnson, former superintendent in Prince William County, Virginia, one of at least 15 systems to attempt and abandon the year-round model in the last decade or so.

But what really irritates me about year-round schooling is the proponents' mantra that the current calendar is a throwback to the agrarian society. To the contrary, it is the year-round calendar that regards children as if they were in the 19th century, as year-round worker bees whose goal is to apprentice for their adult life's work.

Educators repeatedly stress that a child is largely shaped outside the classroom. A young person needs a summer break long enough to learn how to swim, to take a trip or two, to hold down a summer job, to find (and, of course, lose) a summer love. That is what makes a child grow. No matter how much data the two sides in this debate toss out, they can never quantify such things.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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