School calendar stays despite being dated

The Education Beat

Relic : The traditional document goes back a century, and any attempt to change it meets resistance.

July 19, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IS THE TYPICAL SCHOOL calendar dated?

You bet it is. It's a century-old relic based on a farming economy that no longer exists. Children regress academically during the summer. The nine-months-on, three-months-off school year is inconvenient for the half of American families in which both parents work. It encourages indolence and vagrancy.

Is it likely to give way to something that makes academic sense?

You bet it isn't. Although 2 million children are in year-round schools (four times the enrollment of charter schools), the traditional school calendar is sure to be around for a long, long time. It's deeply imbedded in our culture. Moreover, powerful economic interests such as the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions oppose school calendar reform.

And who wants to take on Mickey Mouse?

Year-round school proposals rise from time to time in Maryland like the crocuses of spring. They last just about as long. Typically, they're shot down by middle-class suburbanites, Ocean City restaurateurs and teachers who fear burnout, even though the year-round calendar simply spaces the 180 days required by state law in evenly spaced chunks throughout the year.

"Both change and resistance to change in the school calendar have been dictated by local and national economic interests, not by the educational benefit to children," said Harris Cooper, a University of Missouri-Columbia social psychologist who has studied the year-round phenomenon.

Speaking yesterday at a conference on summer learning at the Johns Hopkins University, Cooper predicted that change in the traditional calendar is inevitable.

Only 3 percent of American livelihoods depend on agriculture, two-income families are more the rule than the exception and one in five families is headed by a woman without a spouse.

"For these parents," Cooper said, "summer may be hazy, but it is not lazy, and finding appropriate activities for children when school is out is a real dilemma. Eventually, the shift in business and family economics ... will overcome resistance to change, but the process may be long and more or less painful."

Cooper added half in jest that the shift to year-round schooling ought to be accompanied by moving Thanksgiving to October, as is the practice in Canada. This would allow for a more sensible spacing of the sessions in a year-round plan, he said.

The only true year-round public school in Maryland is Robert Coleman Elementary in West Baltimore.

The school has four 45-day sessions a year, each followed by a 15-day "intersession."

Those intersessions are crucial, said Charles E. Ballinger, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education, because educators can intervene quickly with children who are fall behind.

"What justification is there to a system whereby a learning blockage surfacing in late October cannot be treated until the third week in June?" Ballinger said.

Mississippi `worst' state for paddling in schools

On a recent reporting trip to Mississippi, I was amazed to learn that school paddling is still a common practice. It's been outlawed in Maryland so long that I'd almost forgotten it. But a report from the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools lists Mississippi as the "worst" state when it comes to the percentage of students struck by educators.

The coalition said one out of 10 children in the Magnolia State was paddled in the 1997-1998 school year, the last for which complete data are available. Texas, already and perhaps not coincidentally leading the nation in capital punishment, also leads in corporal punishment, with 81,373 recorded spankings in 1997-1998.

The coalition said blacks make up 17 percent of students in the 23 states where corporal punishment is legal, but receive 37 percent of the paddlings. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia prohibit corporal punishment.

Now's the time for action to close some city schools

New city schools chief Carmen V. Russo has been warning that Baltimore has too many schools.

She's a brave woman to take on such an emotionally charged job, but somebody has to do it. Twenty-five years ago, Baltimore had 195,000 kids in roughly 180 schools, a ratio of about one school for 1,100 students. Now the city has 103,000 students in the same number of schools, or one school to about 570 kids. But they're not equally distributed.

Russo will need luck and fortitude. Whatever she recommends will be unpopular.

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