New schedule benefits learning, but breaks create a logistics ‘nightmare’

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A year-round, four-track schedule has some educational benefit, but can also be disruptive to schools and families, a number of principals say.

With the typical four-track schedule, schools eliminate the three-month summer break and replace it with several short vacations throughout the year. At any given time, a quarter of students are on break, which frees up classroom space and allows overcrowded schools to absorb more students, district officials explain.

At Lee Elementary in West Lawn, Principal Marjorie Joy says student retention is better, “because there is no gap over the summer. And discipline is better. Kids have year-round authority without a long break.”

Sandy Traback, principal of Chavez Elementary in Back of the Yards, says that teachers take advantage of the breaks to reinforce learning by assigning homework to ease the transition when students returned after the break.

As for teachers, says Traback, “There’s no burnout. They work 12 weeks, have a month off and come back very refreshed.” The benefits prompted Chavez to continue with year-round schooling, even after scrapping a four-track schedule two years ago after acquiring a new building to relieve overcrowding.

Principal Aleen Donaldson of Casals Elementary in Humboldt Park also says that four-track scheduling has benefits. “We took low-achievers and were really able to work with them because we had more time to concentrate on their problems.

With reduced class sizes and no long [summer] gaps, the children become more focused and less likely to misbehave.”

Research has found no conclusive evidence that year-round schooling improves student achievement. And a 1987 study of year-round and multi-track schools in California found that academic performance at multi-track, year-round schools was consistently worse than at single-track, year-round schools.

Staff development, logistics

A four-track schedule makes it difficult to plan schoolwide staff development, principals say, since a segment of the faculty is always on vacation at any given time.

Logistics can also be challenging. At Lee, for instance, four 3rd-grade classes share three classrooms, so at least one teacher has to relocate virtually every month. That teacher is chosen by lottery each year, Joy says.

And for some parents, the possibility of having siblings on different schedules is a major drawback because of child care and other concerns.

“It’s hard to plan a vacation if your children are not off of school at the same time,” says Nereida Lara, president of the overcrowding committee for Sandoval Elementary in West Lawn. But in some cases, Lara says, parents don’t mind having children on different tracks. “It’s more difficult to have all of the children at home at the same time.”

CPS can divide attendance areas into quadrants so that children living in the same quadrant are on the same schedule. But the approach does not always work when a school departmentalizes its upper grades, one principal points out.

“You need all the 7th- and 8th-graders on the same track to run a good departmental program,” Joy says. Lee made a special effort to keep siblings together, but doing so, she adds, can be “a nightmare.”