Year-round schooling can cure much of what ails us

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Chicago’s public schools have been national leaders in school restructuring. Members of the education community here have taken risks and must continue to do so. They must hold tightly to the belief that every child in Chicago is worth it.

To that end, we must make sure that time indeed serves the needs of our children. What our children need are schools that are open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, 52 weeks a year. While increasing the amount of time children are in class would be beneficial, the main goal of keeping schools open longer each day and throughout the year is to improve the delivery for academic instruction and to provide desperately needed flexibility to support families and communities.

Keeping schools open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. makes it possible to begin classes at different hours. With that flexibility, schools can match the differing work schedules of parents and, in the process, strengthen the home-school partnership. Some teachers and other educational employees themselves may welcome different hours.

Keeping schools open year-round makes it possible to rearrange class time to make it much more productive. Chicago currently has 13 elementary schools that are open year-round on an alternative calendar. Finkl Academy will join them in July, bringing the total to 14. In these schools, students alternate between 60 days of class and 20 days of break/intersession. Children and teachers are on the same “track,” that is, they all attend classes the same weeks and are on break/intersession the same weeks.

This alternative school calendar helps maintain student interest in learning. When periods of classroom learning are followed by regular vacations, interest remains high to the end of the period. Refreshed by the breaks, teachers and students return ready to work. All participants learn to work hard for a period of time and then to rest and regenerate for the next block of academic instruction.

Further, if children fall behind, catch-up work can be done much more quickly. It can be done during intersession rather than having to wait for summer school. Educators and parents from Chicago’s Muñoz-Marin Primary Center and Chavez Multicultural Academy have made presentations at the annual conferences of the Illinois Association for Year-Round Education on the benefits of providing remediation much closer to the time students need it.

The issue of timely remediation is even more important now that the Chicago public schools are moving toward a system of learning standards that students must meet. Currently, when a high school student falls behind in a particular course, he or she has little chance of recovering during the year. Summer school is summer school regardless of its name. With a 12-month alternative calendar that has regular intersessions, students’ regular teachers can prepare for the time when they can participate in remedial intersession programs. There is no evidence that sitting in a class for months, waiting to “catch up” during the summer, benefits anyone.

Intersessions also provide opportunities for enrichment activities. Chavez, in cooperation with the Chicago Park District, keeps its children safe and off the streets by offering swimming lessons and other recreational experiences all year. By extending its hours and going year-round, Funston Elementary School helped create a nationally recognized parent program, featured a year ago in the NBC-TV documentary “Reason to Dream.”

Staff at Schubert and Buckingham elementary schools point out that the 12-month calendar especially benefits children with disabilities as it accommodates the IEP (individual education plan) and also eliminates the cost of an extended-school-year program (the 10 weeks that children with disabilities must attend during the summer months).

High school benefits

In high schools, shifting to any one of several 12-month options (trimesters, quarters, or other alternative year-round calendars) also would give students the opportunity to take additional courses to strengthen their preparation for college or to repeat a class they did not pass in the previous term.

Further, students in vocational courses could rotate through one internship position at a given work site, working a full eight-hour shift when their tracks are on break/intersession. The vocational teacher, thus, can keep a job experience program filled for 12 months by coordinated job sharing among three or more students.

Many high schools also are requiring community service projects as part of students’ graduation requirements. With alternative scheduling, they, too, could rotate students through a particular position or project. In many cases, students would benefit, too, by doing their service during a regular work day, just like the adults who are involved.

Also, with alternating tracks it should be easier for students to find temporary jobs during their break/ intersessions. Now, all the competition is during the summer.

Beyond these scheduling advantages, high school students also need to view their schools as places that are always available to them for guidance. Kids that are at risk often say that a primary reason for their despair is that no one seems to care about their circumstances and that they see no hope for success.

As noted in “Charting Reform in Chicago: The Students Speak,” a recent report of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, “High schools are larger and more complex environments where students typically have less opportunity to sustain meaningful interaction with their teachers.” It therefore seems imperative that high school college/vocational counselors and vocational teacher-coordinators be 12-month employees. With alternative calendars, students could seek them out during their break/intersessions, when the press of classes is not so great.

Now take a look at the traditional school calendar, which is based on semesters. After almost three months of summer vacation, teachers and students begin the school year with the arduous task of reviewing where everybody left off in June. That typically takes most of September. Then, they’re into a long block of instruction. But just weeks before that block comes to an end, they break for two weeks of winter vacation. Then everyone returns for a three-week wrap-up session.

At the end of the first semester, teachers typically have only one or two days to grade final exams and plan for the beginning of the second semester. The second semester is just as illogical as the first: Teachers and students begin hurriedly and almost finish a block of academic instruction when spring break arrives. After that, everyone returns for a few weeks before the long summer vacation begins.

This makes absolutely no sense academically or fiscally and actually wastes time.

Since 1988, everyone in Chicago’s educational community has been encouraged to be a participant in “reform” and “restructuring,” but little attention has been paid to the element of time. In its 1994 report, “Prisoners of Time,” the National Education Commission on Time and Learning notes, “Adding school reform to the list of things schools must accomplish, without recognizing that time in the current calendar is a limited resource, trivializes the effort. It sends a powerful message to teachers: Don’t take this reform business too seriously. Squeeze it in on your own time.”

Teachers need extra time

If Chicago’s educational community is to reinvent schools around learning, then teachers need additional time for planning, for learning, for sharing, for making mid-course corrections. This message comes through loud and clear from a number of recent national studies.

In “Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution,” the National Association of Secondary School Principals advises: “Teaching and learning need room for flexibility. Furthermore, schools should operate 12 months a year to provide more time for professional staff development, collegial planning and the added instruction needed to promote better student learning. The manner in which a high school organizes itself and the ways in which it uses time create a framework that affects almost everything about teaching and learning in the school.”

In “What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future,” the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future advises: “Restructure time and staffing so that teachers have regular time to work with one another. Rethink schedules so that students and teachers have more extended time together over the course of the day, week and year.”

The commission goes on to say that restructured schools “are finding time by devoting more of their staff energy directly to classroom teaching, rather than to administration or management of special services.

By rethinking time and staffing assignments, they can reduce student loads while giving teachers regular periods each week to work with and learn from each other.”

What this boils down to is a 52-week contract that allows licensed teachers to both teach and learn.

Molly A. Carroll is on the board of directors of the National Association for Year-Round Education and is vice president/president-elect of the Illinois Association for Year-Round Education. She also is assistant director of the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center. For further information on year-round schooling, call (312) 329-9100.