A study of longer terms

October 11, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

If Old Court Middle School adopts its plan for a longer school year for all students, it will join a select group of schools in this country.

Some private school students go to school more than 180 days. Some public and private schools offer voluntary extended-year programs. Other public schools, such as two in New Orleans, have tried longer years, been pleased with the results, but have had to give them up because of the added expense.

Year-round schools are becoming more prevalent, but these schools usually just configure the 180 days differently to ease overcrowding and reduce learning loss by having shorter

vacations.

American schools have been steadfast in clinging to a nine-month school year, despite calls for reform and warnings that students here are falling further and further behind their Japanese and European peers who spend more days -- and hours each day -- in classrooms.

There is evidence that the idea is getting a hearing. A little-noticed provision in an education bill enacted by Congress last week includes $72 million for school districts who keep students in class for 210 days.

"The few who will lead on this, and see their students do better on the average than other American students, will soon be followed," said Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat who backed the proposal.

Educators, in fact, debate whether more is better when it comes to time in school. Many say just using the time they have more efficiently would help students.

At least one public school, the Brooks Global Studies Magnet School in Greensboro, N.C., is committed to more time as a way to improve education.

The Brooks school operates 210 days a year, 30 days longer than any other school in the Guilford County School District. And 300 youngsters are on a waiting list for the 4-year-old elementary school, which has nearly 400 students this year.

"Time within itself is not necessarily good, unless it's used effectively," said Tony Meachum, Brooks' principal. "With 30 extra days, they can go into various topics in more detail. We're trying to teach our children to be problem-solvers, to think on their feet," he added.

The Brooks school ended last year on June 29. It started this school year July 21, said Mr. Meachum. The students had three weeks off; the teachers, two. Many of the Brooks students have never known any other schedule. They started there in kindergarten and don't expect the traditional summer off. Instead, they have a long weekend almost every month; a normal holiday break and a relatively long spring break, said Laura Colston-Brooks, whose two children attend the school.

"We're really happy with it," said Ms. Colston-Brooks. "The teachers really work hard to make things interesting. This is a special, special school," said the PTA co-president.

Because it's a magnet program, students and families knew when they applied that they would be buying into a longer school year, making it different from the proposed longer year at Old Court. The first year, Brooks had only 80 students.

The Brooks students are showing more progress than youngsters of similar backgrounds and abilities who are in traditional-year magnet schools, said a researcher following some Brooks students since the school opened in the fall of 1991.

"Extended year kids make twice as much progress as traditional-year kids in reading and math," said Julie A. Frazier, a doctoral student in developmental psychology at Loyola University of Chicago. These results came after a year of additional days.

Ms. Frazier's study is showing even more differences between the two groups in general knowledge, she said. "It is possible that the extended-year teachers [knowing more time was available for instruction] may simply have engaged their

students in more in-depth lessons, which, in turn, may have contributed to the development of a higher level of general knowledge," she wrote in a summary of the study to-date.

Ms. Frazier said the greater implications of an extended year is the cumulative effect on students who attend Brooks throughout elementary school.

Even with this success, Mr. Meachum sees a few disadvantages to the extended year. It's more expensive, costing about $500,000 more to operate per year than a 10-month school, he said. He also has concerns about teacher burnout, about animosity from other schools that think they are being shortchanged and about some real administrative problems, such as hiring staff and ordering materials with only three weeks between school years.

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