Opinion Article: Can Year-round Schools Improve Students' Learning?

March 01, 2000

Following is an opinion article written by Mr. James J. MacCallum, West Virginia Board of Education member.  

In this piece, which has been mailed to newspapers throughout the state, Mr. MacCallum examines the year-round calendar and asks West Virginians to look beyond "what's always been" to determine what's best for today's students.  


Isn't it time we look beyond "what's always been" to design a school calendar that best meets the needs of today's students and families?  

The traditional school calendar was developed when America was predominantly an agricultural society.Although most students don't reside on farms today, the school calendar has remained essentially the same as it was at the very beginning of public education. At that time, families required an extended break in the spring and summer to plant and harvest crops and to maintain their farms.  

When most students and parents think of the few year-round schools in place today, they incorrectly assume that students on this modified calendar attend school without any breaks. In reality, students in year-round schools normally attend classes the same number of days -- and have the same total number of days off -- as their counterparts on the traditional calendar. The difference is that year-round schools plan breaks throughout the year, instead of having a two and one-half month vacation each summer.  

Some studies have indicated that students -- especially elementary students -- learn more when they don't experience what some educational experts call "the summer of forgetting." When students have an entire summer to forget what they had learned the previous school year, teachers must devote days -- sometimes weeks -- reviewing old material before beginning to teach new lessons each fall.  

Proponents say that year-round schools and their modified calendar:  

- reduce teacher burnout and student stress,  

- reduce drop-out rates and discipline problems,  

- increase student achievement and student retention of material,  

- decrease school vandalism and burglaries, and  

- provide breaks throughout the year which can be used to offer an extra session of remedial and enrichment classes to students.  

Educators in year-round schools utilize these breaks, called intersessions, to help students needing additional assistance catch up with their classmates. Instead of having to wait until summer school to learn material they've missed, students who fall behind in year-round schools can be helped during intersessions scheduled throughout the year.  

The comprehensive 1994 report, "Prisoners of Time," examined the traditional school calendar and its impact on student learning. This report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning presented numerous controversial conclusions, including:  

- "The six-hour, 180-day school year should be relegated to museums, an exhibit from our education past."  

- "Today's school schedule must be modified to respond to the great changes that have reshaped American life outside of school."  

- "The fixed clock and calendar is a fundamental design flaw that must be changed."  

Some West Virginia educators have also recognized the limitations of the traditional school calendar. At the December 9, 1999, meeting of the West Virginia Board of Education, Steve Knighton, principal of Kanawha County's Piedmont Elementary, the state's first year-round school, spoke glowingly about the positive impact the schedule has had on his students and staff.  

"Our students, parents and teachers love the year-round calendar," Knighton explained. "We've seen an improvement in student performance, attitudes and behavior, and our teachers are less stressed. The year-round calendar has made a difference at our school."  

Dortha Williamson, principal at Spring Hill Elementary in Cabell County, wholeheartedly agrees. At the December meeting, she presented a detailed report which indicated that students on her year-round calendar score higher on standardized tests than their classmates at the school who are on the regular calendar (both options are offered to students at the school). In her report, Williamson showed that students who are on the modified calendar have a higher attendance rate and fewer disciplinary problems than their counterparts on the regular schedule. Representatives from the state's two other year-round schools -- Chandler and Glenwood Elementary schools in Kanawha County -- have also indicated that the modified calendar has had a positive impact on their students and staff.  

While anecdotal information and preliminary data from four schools do not prove that all West Virginia's schools should be adopting a year-round calendar, these results at least suggest that more schools and counties should be exploring this option. It's an issue of discussion throughout the country and deserves our continued attention here in West Virginia. Let's keep talking.

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