At Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church last week, the school bell rang, fresh packages of pencils were opened and brand-new kindergartners met the day with mixed emotions.
The first week of August means the first day of school at Graham Road and a half-dozen other Fairfax County elementary schools that are on a modified school-year calendar. While students are only required to attend school for the same number of days as the rest of the county, the schedule is divided into nine-week sessions with optional, but academically enriching, two- or three-week intersessions in between. The students have a summer break of about six weeks.
Several schools in Alexandria are on a similar calendar, as is the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in the District.
Nationwide, about 7,000 schools are on the modified schedule — called a year-round calendar in some districts. It long has been in place in many districts in California and Texas, and this year children in 132 Chicago public schools will move to such a schedule.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last spring he is in favor of more American schoolchildren taking part in year-round school.
“Go ahead and boo me,” Mr. Duncan told an assembly of middle- and high-school students at a public school in Denver last spring. “I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short. You’re competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week; 11, 12 months a year.”
The prospect of such a schedule has met with mixed reviews, especially at a time when many public schools are having to trim budgets and meet basic goals. Some critics say summer should be for creative loafing, camp and family time. Proponents say the reality for many children is far from that — too much summer time is spent unsupervised or in front of a TV, just when children need academic stimulation to stay at grade level.
Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, studied more than 800 inner-city students for more than 20 years. His findings: By ninth grade, low-income students had fallen 3½ grade levels behind their peers. Most of the gap was due to learning loss over the summer, Mr. Alexander said.
Molly Bensinger-Lacy, principal at Graham Road, says the modified calendar has been a boost to her school. In fact, when the modified calendar appeared to be in jeopardy this year due to county budget cuts, school staff lobbied to keep the program. Ms. Bensinger-Lacy says the school is using some of its federal stimulus money to fill in some of the gaps.
“We’ve lived to go on another year,” she says. “It is a popular program, and we have been doing it at Graham Road long enough so they are used to it. We get five extra weeks of instruction. That benefits the students, and the parents get the added benefit of there is a safe and affordable place for their children to be.”
Eighty-one percent of the students at Graham Road qualify for free or reduced lunch, and a similarly large portion come from homes where English is a second language.
“The lengthy summer was pretty devastating for the kids as to what skills they lost,” Ms. Bensinger-Lacy says. “There has been a dramatic difference in what children come back with when we return in August compared to when we come back in September.
Five years ago, Graham Road was “accredited with warning” by the state of Virginia, meaning it had not made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind statute. These days, Graham Road is recognized as a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School because of its dramatic progress.
At most schools with a year-round calendar, there is a clear distinction between the nine-week school sessions and the shorter intersessions. The optional intersessions try to be innovative. At Graham Road, for instance, there are the typical classes that boost reading and math skills, but also classes taught by members of the Washington Performing Arts Society.
At Franconia Elementary, Carylin Waterval’s fourth-grader has participated in creative math classes and cooking classes during intersession.
“During the intersession, there is less pressure,” says Ms. Waterval, who also has a kindergartner entering the school this year. “The classes are not graded. There is no homework. The kids think it is fun.”
Ms. Waterval, who is vice president of Franconia’s PTA, says the modified calendar is well received among the parents in her neighborhood. When there was some discussion about the school system returning those schools to the traditional calendar due to budget cuts, the Franconia parents were very disappointed, she says.
“I have never heard of another parent who did not like it,” she said, adding that her family still had plenty of time to do summer activities, such as take vacations during the six-week June and July break.
The modified calendar has not been as well received in some neighborhoods. Parents in Wake County, N.C., took their case against the school system to the state Supreme Court, which last spring ruled the county could assign children to year-round schools without the families’ consent.
Billee Bussard heads a Florida-based advocacy group called Summer Matters. She contends there is “no significant economic or educational value” to year-round school.
“The traditional calendar is still the best bang for the buck,” she says. “The year-round calendar is a disruption to family and community life. It denies children fun and learning experiences outside school walls.”
Ms. Bussard, who does not have school-age children, says there are additional problems caused by the year-round calendar: It forces school systems to pay for extra electricity and staff salaries, and that low-income families look at it as a way to get free baby-sitting.
Meanwhile, a 2007 study by sociologists at Ohio State showed that tests scores of children from similar economic backgrounds in a year-round school improved at about the same rate as children in a traditional school. Researchers looked at reading and math scores of kindergartners and first-graders from 748 public schools and 244 private schools nationwide. Scores from students in 27 public schools classified as year-round were compared to scores of students in schools with traditional calendars. Over a 12-month period, average test score gains were less than 1 percent larger in year-round than in nine-month schools.
The stats for E.L. Haynes Public Charter school in Columbia Heights say otherwise. The K-12 school has been on a year-round calendar since 2004. By 2008, students gained 19 percentage points in math and 18 percentage points in reading and met the adequate yearly progress mark. Fairfax County has not done a major study of the modified calendar’s impact, says school district spokesman Paul Regnier.
The debate over which schedule is best is likely to continue, says Kenneth Gold, chair of the department of education at the College of Staten Island and author of the book “School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.” On one side is increased competition with countries where children are in school more hours and more days. On the other side: lobbying from summer camps and amusement parks, which would be decimated if the majority of schools cut the long summer break.
In between are traditionalists who think summer should be the way they remember: long, lazy days lolling in the sun and waiting for the ice cream truck.
“Certain practices have become embedded in what we think of traditional school,” Mr. Gold says. “That includes the September to June calendar. But school formerly was year-round, and it wasn’t just because of the agrarian economy. Summer vacation was created about 150 years ago by the first generation of school reformers in a need to standardize the American school calendar.”
These days, to be successful — both in appealing to skeptical families and to school board budgets — a year-round school needs to show why it is different. That can come in the form of improved test scores or innovative intersession learning or simply students who are energized by what is happening in the classroom.
“What troubles people,” Mr. Gold says, “is that if they are not happy with the kind of school their kids are in, then more of the same is not going to be that much better.”