All-year school program ready for 2nd round

July 05, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's only year-round public school has stood the test of time, completing a year's cycle in West Baltimore with favorable reviews and a principal so eager to get to work that she fell on her front porch and broke her arm.

When students return to Robert W. Coleman Elementary School the first week in August, they will have had only four weeks of summer vacation. But Principal Addie Johnson said attendance last August, when the experiment began, was 96 percent and that it held up last month, when Coleman students were still in school while 750,000 other Marylanders were on their traditional 10-week vacations.

"You can tell I'm pumped and excited," said Ms. Johnson, pointing to the brace on her left arm. "We're being successful because our kids want to be here. This is the place to be in the summer."

Coleman's schedule, designed chiefly to cut down on what educators call "summer learning loss" that occurs during the long traditional break, consists of four 45-day sessions, each followed by a 15-day intersession, plus the monthlong summer break.

Students still attend school the state-required 180 days; they just do it on a schedule that's spread out, and they do it in the comfort of one of the city's 88 air-conditioned schools (about half the total).

"There's more for my brain here," said Dena Barnwell, 9. "I like being in school during the summer. Other wise, there's nothing to do."

Dena may have put her finger on one of the reasons year-round schooling seems to be a hit at Coleman but has encountered widespread hostility elsewhere in Maryland. Coleman, where 79 percent of the students are eligible for free lunches, faces relatively little summer competition from family vacations, summer camps and the like.

"All of these things like summer camp are learning experiences," said Christopher T. Cross, president of the state Board of Education. Mr. Cross sat on a national commission that recommended last year an expansion of the school day and the school year to help Americans catch up with better-educated students in Europe and Japan.

"Kids at city schools like Coleman don't get the summer enrichment. They don't get the vacations and the camps. I'm encouraged by what I hear about Coleman," he said.

Evidence of the educational benefits of the year-round program at Coleman is only anecdotal. Scores on national basic-skills tests given citywide in April improved at Coleman only in the second and fifth grades; they were stagnant or declined in the other grades. (National studies also do not show clear educational gains.)

But that was before Coleman's first full year was in the books. Donald L. Jones, a social studies teacher in the fourth and fifth grades, said the year-round schedule "makes so much more sense for teachers and students."

"In August, we didn't have to spend a few weeks reviewing the material from the previous session. When we go back this August, I'll have my fourth-graders from June. We'll be in full gear in a few days," he said.

"The year-round schedule also helps us see new dimensions in our kids," said Denise Melvin, a special education teacher. "They're here longer because most of them came during the intersessions, and they showed us talents we didn't know they had. We could see the maturity level rising, even over the 15-day breaks."

With the help of a $91,000 state grant, Ms. Johnson was able to pay for informal courses and for breakfasts and lunches during the intersessions, which she said were attended by "the vast majority" of Coleman's 528 students, even though attendance was optional. During the first break last fall, Coleman offered 20 courses, ranging from computer technology to dance.

Intersession rules were relaxed, said Ms. Johnson. Students and teachers could dress informally. There were barbecues in warm weather. Part of the spring intersession was devoted to training for the Maryland school performance tests. School days during the 15-day breaks ended at lunch.

"My son had a wonderful year at Coleman," Gina Anderson said of Lavell, an 8-year-old third-grader. "The good point is he improved his reading, writing and math skills and his listening skills. The bad point is that a lot of us who work had baby-sitting problems during the [intersessions]. We could plan ahead for the 45-day sessions, but they didn't give us enough warning for the between sessions." (The school made some arrangements for day care, but Ms. Johnson said some parents complained.)

The future of Coleman's experiment is uncertain. The $91,000 grant was a one-time payment ordered three years ago by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who wanted to save on school construction costs in rapidly growing suburban districts by extending the school year.

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