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Is Year-Round School the Answer?

Jordan Catapano

The first day of school is a magical day where butterflies flutter in stomachs and feet hit the ground ready to sprint into the school year. Many schools begin anywhere from mid-August through mid-September, following a long and well-earned summer vacation. But what would you think if your first day of the new school year occurred in early July?

A rising number of schools across the nation have begun transitioning into an “alternative calendar” or “balanced calendar” that features year-round school – many of which have their new school year begin during the summer. Public schools have traditionally closed during the summer months for well over the past hundreds years (due to heat; not the agrarian calendar). Unfortunately, the traditional summer break causes a dip in student achievement, known as the “summer slide,” that most notoriously affects low and at-risk students who go for months without academic enrichment. Summer slide causes many students to fall behind and costs unnecessary time and money re-teaching material at the beginning of the next school year.

Some schools have sought to combat summer slide by creating summer enrichment programs or providing more extensive supportive initiatives during the school year and the summer. A growing number of other schools, however, have opted to transition into a year-round calendar model. In fact, according to a Congressional Research Service report, as of 2014 there were nearly 3,700 schools operating on a balanced calendar system – an increase of more than 23 percent since 2000.

The Year-Round School Calendar

Balanced calendars can operate on several different types of schedules. The majority of these models can be categorized as either single-track or multitrack calendars.

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Single-track: The “single-track” model means that all students and staff operate on the same school-wide schedule. This schedule typically involves attending school with consistent one or two week breaks spread throughout the year. Summer’s ten-plus week extravaganza is mollified into another two-week vacation, matching about five or six others throughout the rest of the academic year. Other single-track models may vary their vacation distribution, such as by having a 45 days in class followed by three weeks off cycle.

Multitrack: The “multitrack” year-round calendar is a bit more complicated, but offers several unique benefits. This model typically features a 45-15 format, where each student attends school for 45 days and then is off for 15. But students are not all on the same cycle, so while one might attend for 45 days and then have a break, another might have a break first and then attend. The school is operational for the entirety of the year, even though only three-quarters of the student body is present at any one time. Other multi-track models follow a 60-20, a 60-15, or a 90-30 calendar.

The Perks of a Year-Round School

Summer vacation seems almost sacrosanct, as generations of Americans have cherished the activities and memories enjoyed during these school-free months. However, as more schools adopt the year-round calendar, other perks – perhaps ones that overshadow the traditional model – are starting to get attention.

More balanced breaks throughout the year. Which do you prefer: Many short breaks or a few long breaks? We love the long break over the summer, but that comes at the cost of the summer slide and the inconvenience of having many uninterrupted weeks throughout the rest of the school year, save for winter and spring breaks. Balanced breaks throughout the year add more opportunity for travel, rest, and preparation at unconventional times.

Less review time needed at start of year. Since the next unit or grade begins only a few weeks after the last one ended, there’s less time for review necessary. Teachers don’t have to go back over old content, and students don’t suffer mental atrophy during less-engaging break periods. This ends up boosting education, making the most of time, and saving dollars.

Enrichment and remediation during breaks. Since school is open year-round, opportunities for support exist year-round too. When students have breaks between units or grade levels, they could still be required to spend time in remediation or enrichment activities. Students who didn’t master material on pace with the course could have the chance to learn at their own pace, and families could opt to keep their child in the engaging school environment and receive bonus learning time.

Can fit more students in a “multitrack” calendar. In some schools, space and teacher-to-student ratios are an issue. A multitrack calendar allows for a rotating cycle where not all students are present in the school at one time. This might alleviate some of the space and ratio concerns that many districts face.

But There’s Always a Downside

While the perks of the year-round school system sound alluring, there are several cons to the issue that are worthy of their due consideration.

Additional costs. A year-round school model might cost more, depending on how schools orchestrate their calendar. Paying teachers and other staff for a full year’s commitment may pose challenges. Plus overhead costs – like cooling the entire building throughout summer months – might hit the bottom line. And transportation costs for bussing kids to school year-round may also require careful consideration.

Sacred summer. Year-round schools might make sense on paper, but that could do little to convince a culture of parents, teachers, and students to abandon a long-held tradition. Also, the activities that typically accompany summertime – like jobs for older students or day camp for younger ones – are more difficulty to participate in. This is equally true for teachers who use the extended summer break to work towards higher degrees or have another job of their own.

Scheduling disparities. Sports teams from various districts may face challenges aligning their calendars to accommodate various breaks. What’s more, families may face challenging figuring out what to do with their younger children who have a few weeks off at an unconventional time on the calendar. And don’t forget about teachers who are parents and whose children will likely attend a school on a different calendar system, creating a few complications with family time and childcare.

Year-round schools are increasing their presence in the U.S., but they are a long way from becoming a national trend. It’s not enough to just say, “Schools are fine the way they are,” but we also don’t want to leap to conclusions or too quickly believe we’ve found the answer to all our problems. Year-round education definitely offers a multitude of perks, but as we continually reassess the status of education in our country, we want to make sure that we consider all our options.

What do you think about year-round schools? What does your school do that works for students based on the calendar that you have? Tell us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.