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Time for another trip on the year-round merry-go-round

Submitted by on Sunday, 7 June 2009 2 Comments

It sounds like a sweet set-up in Alexandria, Va.

Magic potions in a Harry Potter class. Math You Can Eat that uses brownies to teach fractions. Calligraphy, karate and film-making.

It’s all because of the district’s experiment with year-round school. My kids love it, and yours will, too, a Washington Post reporter gushes.

Yes, year-round school is all the rage again. Except in California, where districts are moving back to traditional calendars now that they no longer need to push 33 percent more students a year through campuses pockmarked with portables because there wasn’t money to build quickly enough.

Not that it matters, because year-round wasn’t really year-round anyway. It was the same old 180-day schedule but with smaller breaks instead of a chunk of summer. And it was not about academics – for every report that says year-round improves performance, there’s another that says it has no impact.

Year-round isn’t really year-round in Alexandria, either, because “intersession” enrichment classes are optional: Swimming, ballet, photography and remedial help if needed. The number of required academic days at one Alexandria school is a scant three more than currently required in California.

Funny thing, too, about the claims of extra learning in Alexandria: The day at Mount Vernon Community School ends at 2:35 p.m., 42 minutes earlier than the upper grades get out at Big Guy’s school. Wonder if that 4-plus hours a week lost instructional time was included in the calculations that came up with an extra year of schooling for kids who attend all enrichment sessions through fifth grade.

The Alexandria enrichment sessions are not free, though the $25 per two-week “intersession” cost this year is dang cheap day care.

If all 700 kids at Big Guy’s school opted for intersession, their tuition would bring in $8,750 a week. Spread that among 31 teachers with classes of varying sizes and that comes to $282 a week. Sounds like the district is heavily subsidizing optional enrichment classes.

And that’s before you include transportation, utility and supply costs. Could most districts afford it? How can Alexandria even continue to afford it given that the district’s cut $2 million from its budget for next year.

Ay, but there’s federal funding coming as part of the stimulus bill, $5 billion for innovation, and officials have said they want to see districts try longer school years because that’s what they do in China and India. The Post reporter suggested a chunk of that could go to schools willing to experiment with year-round.

Wrong on three points.

Alexandria did not extend its school year in any meaningful way.  China and India do not pretend to try to educate everyone – putting their test scores and American ones side-by-side is not a fair comparison. And there is absolutely nothing innovative about a traditional calendar stretched year-round with enrichment sessions offered when school is out.

Florida tried the same thing in the 1990s. Districts backtracked when they didn’t see a substantial academic return.

There’s a certain irony, at least in California, in that $5 billion stimulus figure because that’s about the amount on the chopping block for education statewide. How can districts that are eliminating summer school reasonably be expected to experiment with year-round school? The current 180-day calendar likely won’t even exist next year. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger already has proposed cutting it by a week and a half.

I have no doubt the reporters kids’ love their year-round school – what’s not to love about making movies and mastering tae kwon do. I agree with her 100 percent when she says that these are the types of things parents dream that schools can be – let’s drop the emphasis on the test and do them.

But what she’s talking about is not year-round school, and it’s certainly not innovation. Let’s hope the stimulus money doesn’t go to replay failed experiments when schools are cutting staff, supplies and instructional time.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • MtnMom said:

    You clarified much about year ’round school. The cuts California has made and intend to make in education are agonizing. It has also been agonizing through the years to find out that money we voted should be spent on education went to the pockets of the superintendents on up, not to teachers and actual education. I hope somebody out there making these decisions will get a clue and STOP cutting back on the one thing we know WILL benefit our future and that is education!!!!!

  • Debra said:

    You know what’s scary? It’s going to get worse. The shortened school year – they’re talking about cutting 10 days – is actually workable if they can focus going into and coming out of breaks, because, honestly, I’m not sure how much Big Guy is going to learn in the next two weeks anyway.

    But the rest – people, supplies, programs – is depressing.

    And they’re definitely cutting teachers at Big Guy’s school next year, which means his beloved kindergarten teacher will move to third grade because she’s the low kindergarten teacher on the totem pole. I suppose you could look at it as “she’s lucky to still have a job.” But it’s a definite loss for next year’s kindergarteners, because this woman is brilliant. She’s the perfect combination of patient yet disciplined – way, way, way better at it than I can ever hope to be. With the wrong teacher, Big Guy’s kindergarten year could have been a disaster due to his severe case of motor-mouth syndrome. Yet she was able to bring him along without crushing him – but not without several well-deserved instances of lost recess privileges.