Year-round school losing its favored status

Education » Some Utah schools buck trend, revert to traditional schedules.
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Layton » Summer vacation ended this week for 3,600 students in Davis School District. Tens-of-thousands more children will hit the books Monday or early next month at a sizeable -- but shrinking -- number of year-round elementary schools along the Wasatch Front.

Once a popular solution to overcrowding, the year-round movement is losing traction in Utah. Parental objections drove Davis this year to switch two of six year-round schools to traditional schedules. The new Canyons School District has abandoned the model because parents didn't like it. Even Jordan, where 27 of 32 elementary schools go year-round, converted one of its schools.

Call Utah "old school" for reverting to the traditional calendar, developed at a time when America was a nation of farmers who needed kids to help plow the fields.

Elsewhere, inner-city schools are going year-round with the belief it will boost test scores and lower dropout rates, especially among low-income children who can't afford summer camps.

But John Sheffield, Davis elementary schools director, predicts year-round schools will rebound when housing construction resumes. It remains one of the easiest, if not best, ways to handle enrollment growth without breaking the bank, he says.

In a "perfect world," Sheffield would like to see all schools move year-round, 10 weeks on and two weeks off. Davis year-round students retain more knowledge and outperform their traditional peers on tests, he says.

And Sheffield believes families adapt more easily to a year-round calendar, because it syncs with their work and child care schedules.

"The families who struggle to juggle everything are those with high schoolers on one schedule and younger kids on another," said Sheffield. Adopting one calendar for all grades alleviates that, he said.

But other rapidly growing districts -- Alpine, Nebo and Washington County -- have stuck with the traditional schedule.

And nationally, research on the academic benefits of year-round schooling is mixed, with some studies showing no learning gains.

Part of the reason could be that year-round schools don't add days to the 180-day calendar.

Most year-round schools in Utah run for 172 days, though the days are longer. They end in mid-June, as do all schools. But they start a month early and include frequent short breaks throughout the year.

The Utah Taxpayers Association is pushing to extend the school year and move to college-style semesters, allowing students to advance at their own pace. But the idea hasn't taken hold.

Until such time, schools are subject to the whim of vocal parents, the impetus for change at Terra Linda Elementary in West Jordan.

After enrollment dropped and Terra Linda went from four staggered tracks to three concurrent tracks, "parents wondered, 'If you can accommodate all the kids at once, why aren't we traditional?'" said Terra Linda principal Mary Ann Erdmann. School this year starts on Aug. 26, instead of July 27.

Erdmann says there are upsides and downsides to both models. Year-round complicates the scheduling of assemblies and parent-teacher conferences and makes it harder for teachers to collaborate, she says. But it alleviates teacher burnout.

"But change isn't easy," said Erdmann. "We'll be watching teachers and kids to keep their morale and energy going. I suspect that in nine weeks, they're going to be ready for a break."

How does year-round work?

Four school districts in Utah offer year-round school: Davis, Granite, Jordan and Salt Lake City.

Students are typically divided into four groups or tracks. Each track has its own schedule, usually 45 days of school followed by 15 days of vacation.

Students register for their preferred track, but the choice is ultimately up to the principal who strives to keep class sizes equal.

The curriculum does not change, except that year-round schools have more opportunities for outdoor activities because school is in session during warmer months.