Will the Trend Catch On?
By Jill Oestreicher Gross
What Did YOU Do Last Summer?
This month, teachers everywhere will invite their students to answer that classic first-day-of-school question: How did you spend your summer vacation? But at the Saltonstall School in Salem, Massachusetts, the teachers already know the answer. After all, the students spent most of the summer with them.
The Saltonstall School is the only public school in Massachusetts offering a year-round education. Since 1995, Saltonstall, which serves students from kindergarten through grade 8, has run in six-week sessions year-round with a one-week break in between. Students are off for a week in October, December, February and April. They also have a two-week break in June, and they get the month of August off. But they’re in school for all of July, learning and studying in an old school building without air conditioning.
And despite what some might think sounds like every kid’s worst nightmare, there’s a waiting list to get into the Saltonstall in nearly every grade.
“July is still about learning,” says Justine Bassett, the parent of 9-year-old boy-girl twins at Saltonstall. “You’ve got to shift your way of thinking about it. The more time spent on learning is not a bad thing.”
No Summer Learning Loss
Close to two million students nationwide are enrolled in year-round education, says Charles Ballinger, director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round Education, a national group that advocates for shorter summer breaks. That number, gleaned from a 2007 survey the NAYRE conducted, has been on the rise since the first year-round schools started decades ago.
Nearly 500 schools in 30 states are year-round, according to data on the NAYRE website. California leads the U.S. in year-round schools, followed by Arizona, North Carolina, and Texas.
Typically, a year-round education means that children attend school during some or most of the summer, with one- or two-week breaks throughout the school year instead of one long summer break. Other types of year-round education include a multi-track system, where different groups of students attend class on a staggered schedule.
The NAYRE does not promote eliminating summer vacation, just shortening it to allow for as much retention of knowledge as possible, Ballinger says.
“The long traditional summer vacation is not helpful to the overall learning of students,” he says. “The most important matter is the possibility of reducing summer learning loss.”
Saltonstall Principal Julie Carter agrees. “It’s easier to keep up the stride of learning because students get needed respites. For many students, our summer session ensures their continued learning and provides structure for their days. We find that students lose less learning over a short one-month break, and return more in stride than when students have longer breaks.”
Parents with children at Saltonstall say their kids are used to being in school in July, and that the extra breaks make up for the shortened summer vacation. Bassett, the head of the school council, says that overall the experience has been positive for her family, although at times it can be challenging.
“It’s tough for kids to go to school in July,” she says. “We make the best of it and try to make it fun,” adding that special programs on Fridays such as yoga, karate and community field trips get the children outside and active.
Another Saltonstall parent, Sarah Morrill, mother of an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old, says their schedule lets them spend more time on new learning and less on rehashing what they’ve already learned. Other benefits, she says, include fewer crowds at family attractions or travel destinations during the one-week breaks.
“It’s really a nice schedule and it’s more reflective of how they’re going to need to function later in life,” Morrill says.
Throughout the United States, schools use different types of modified calendars, often for economic reasons and to use school space more efficiently. In the Cherry Creek School district in Greenwood Village, Colo., seven of the 40 schools are on a four-track system, designed to provide classroom time year-round on a staggered schedule.
“One of the biggest education benefits is that you hit the ground running at the beginning of the year,” says Diane Bernero, the district’s executive director of elementary education and a veteran educator in year-round systems. “Especially for kids who struggle, there’s good retention of information. It’s a great way to provide kids with a great education and to house a third more students.”
Many schools across California have some sort of modified school scheduling. The Brentwood Union Elementary School District in Brentwood, Calif., operates on a “modified traditional school calendar,” starting classes at the end of July with a 10-day break in October and another 10-day break in March, in addition to the traditional two-week winter break.
Detractors of the year-round education system include some parents who say that sports schedules and the schedules of siblings in other schools can make for a chaotic home life. Billie Bussard runs Summer Matters, a Florida-based group that she founded with her husband after researching school calendar reforms. Her opposition to year-round school schedules is another take on the idea of learning review time.
“The more frequent breaks of a year-round calendar require more review days that take away from instructional time for learning new material,” Bussard says. “By contrast, review time is required only in the beginning of the traditional school calendar year that follows one summer break, and teachers are able to continually build on what students have learned without interruption.”
Year-Round Schools in the News
In a recent NBC "The Today Show" appearance, President Barack Obama repeated his position that American kids need to spend more than 180 days in school each year. Obama said that American students are in school about a month less than in most other advanced countries, causing them to lag behind other nations in academic achievement. "That month makes a difference," the president said. "It means that kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer. It's especially severe for poorer kids who may not see as many books in the house during the summers, aren't getting as many educational opportunities."
National Association for Year-Round Education is a group of educators and parents that advocate for shorter summers to help students better retain learning from the school year. Site includes a list of links to Year-Round Schools and School Districts with schools on Year-Round calendars.
Summer Matters is a grassroots organization that uses research to make the case that summer is important to a child’s overall development.
Jill Oestreicher Gross is a freelance writer in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where she lives with her family.
Orininally published in the Boston Parents Paper, September 2010.