More schools go year-round to boost achievement

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It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and students at Walter Dyett Middle School are loaded up with overstuffed book bags and holiday decorations. Chatter is loud and excited among classmates as they board school buses to go home. Most of them won’t see each other again for another six weeks, when school resumes Jan. 6.

After an almost 20-year hiatus, Dyett has returned to a year-round schedule. Its students are in school for 60 days and then out for 20; December is an out month. Dyett is the latest addition to a growing number of Chicago public schools to adopt or maintain a year-round schedule solely for academic reasons.

A total of 18 Chicago schools have year-round schedules, according to Molly Carroll, president of the Illinois Association for Year Round Education, though some are strictly to relieve overcrowding. In those cases, the in and out cycles overlap so that classes are held virtually every weekday of the year.

Outside Chicago, another 13 Illinois schools have year-round schedules. Two Northwest suburban school districts are studying the year-round option. Loves Park, which is close to Rockford, would pilot the year-round schedule at one school, and Carpentersville District 300 is looking to convert all 19 of its schools, according to Carroll.

Year-round advocates argue that their schedule keeps students on a steady academic track. Studies show that students lose one month of instruction for every three-month summer break and then can suffer burnout during the traditional semester. That can be especially harmful for students who are at-risk of failing a class or not being promoted to the next grade.

“The selling point is that year-round school eliminates the long summer of forgetting,” says Carroll, who also is associate director of the Chicago Teachers Union’s Quest Center. Instead, “education continues, and students stay focused.”

Year-round school also can ease a student’s transition from grade to grade, says Dyett Principal Cheryl Marshall Washington. “On a Friday [students] leave 5th grade, and the following Monday they are in 6th. … They have less time to think about going into middle school, and just do it. They bond more quickly with the teachers and with each other.”

Another major benefit is that year-round offers a safety net for struggling students. “You don’t have to wait until June or July, or whenever the summer break is,” to help students catch up, says Debra Milton, a math teacher at Dyett. “You can do it right [away.]…Otherwise, they have to wait the whole year, and then go backwards rather than learning immediately.”

Finkl Elementary Principal Elizabeth Elizondo agrees. “You are doing a preventative program.” Even children who are on par with their grades receive take-home assignments.

Year-round schools use summer Bridge Program money to offer tutoring during the periodic “intercessions.” Some use discretionary money to offer enrichment programs, too.

Elizondo is on her second year-round school. In 1992, as principal of Drummond Elementary, she led the conversion of that school to a year-round schedule. She says that change was the key to a subsequent increase in test scores. (See Catalyst, March 1994.)

Last spring, the percentage of students at Finkl who scored at or above national norms on the Iowa test nearly doubled to 18 percent. Elizondo is optimistic the school will continue to improve its standing this year. “I attribute our change in scores to going year-round. … Hopefully we’ll be off [probation] this spring.”

Dyett’s goal is to boost the number of its students at or above national norms to 35 percent by the end of this school year.

A number of studies confirm achievement benefits, especially for low-income youngsters.

Other Chicago public schools operating year-round for academic reasons are Bethune, Buckingham, Chavez, Du Bois, Funston, Hearst, Joplin, Lee, Madero Middle, McNair, Muñoz Marin, Nightingale, Pable Casals, Powell and Schubert.

With no school in December, a year-round schedule is a particular boon to schools with Latino students, some of whom take extended family vacations to Mexico, Puerto Rico or South America during the winter holidays. Both Funston and Finkl report improved attendance since making the switch to year-round classes.

Year-round scheduling has proved to be popular with most teachers and parents. At Dyett, teachers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new regimen. “I think it’s great!” says Willie Barner, a veteran teacher and local school council member. “Kids tend to be on the edge after about three months, then they get a break. It’s better for students and for teachers.”

At Funston, 80 percent of parents voted to continue year-round scheduling even after the construction of Ames Middle School eliminated the school’s overcrowding. Parents appreciate the shorter summer vacations, says Principal Sally Acker, because they don’t have to worry about child care or how to entertain their children for three months.

A year-round schedule poses obstacles for some families, though. For example, the younger siblings of some Dyett students attend Burke, an elementary school that does not operate year-round. “During the summer, one kid is out for a couple of months, and another kid isn’t,” says teacher Jonathon Kohler. “I think that’s a formidable problem.”

That complaint almost derailed the year-round schedule at Lloyd Elementary, where parents protested the switch by keeping their children out of school over the summer months. (See Catalyst, April 1995.) By July 1996, Lloyd had switched back to a traditional schedule.

Elizondo says there are some bureaucratic obstacles, too, including payroll issues. “They forget about us,” Elizondo grouses. “I am not saying that it is done intentionally, but it is frustrating.”

But the largest obstacle to year-round schedule is overcoming misconceptions, advocates say. “Sometimes teachers … think that they are going to be working 365 days a year or that you are never going to have any free time,” Elizondo notes. When she was principal of Drummond, the school lost five teachers to early retirement after making the switch. Other schools have reported similar turnover.

That’s because “people are hesitant to change,” says Carroll. “In most everybody’s life, traditional school meant September to June. When most people hear ‘year-round,’ they think every day, all year.”

Making the switch

Dyett tried year-round scheduling in the 1970s but returned to a traditional school day in 1980. Washington, who became principal in 1994, became intrigued with the idea after hearing about it at middle school conferences. First, she sold a few members of her faculty on the idea. Then in March of 1998, the group presented a proposal to the local school council. The council signed on, too, and in May, it sought School Board approval.

In the meantime, parents and teachers had an opportunity to voice their opinions. “We were very up front about it,” says Washington. “We asked that if anyone had any conflicts with the schedule … to say so up front.”

Washington met regularly with longtime teachers who were concerned about their vacation and paychecks. Debra Milton was one of them. “I was kind of adverse at first,” she admits. “[Ms. Washington] sent me to a meeting at another school that had [year-round]. I came back and told everybody, ‘That’s the way to go.’ Now I am one of their biggest cheerleaders.”

Students also had their say. They wrote essays, attended house meetings and, in the end, took a vote, says Assistant Principal Willard Brown. This year’s 8th-graders were initially “sort of reluctant, but now, if you talk to most of them, they like [it],” says Brown.

Once approved, Dyett implemented the new schedule with a dizzying speed. With only about 90 days to prepare, the school kicked off year-round last July.

Washington finds it hard to believe herself, but she has no reservations about the new. “We are a champion for year-round schools. Everyday, we pinch ourselves and say, ‘We just can’t believe that things are running as smoothly as they are.'”