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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2013/08/foregoing-summer-vacation-parents-swamp-year-round-school/
12 August 2013
Third grade started early for Carl and Charles Shinn, with the twins grumbling in the back seat as their mother drove them to Croswell-Lexington Community Schools on July 8 when many Michigan students still had Fourth of July fireworks in their eyes.
“They said they weren’t going to go,” said mother Patti Shinn. “But they get bored by the end of summer.”
If they’re like a lot of students, summer causes bigger problems than boredom. Students typically forget some of the math and reading skills they’d developed the previous school year during the summer break. Teachers often have to use September just to bring students back up to the academic level they were at the previous June.
So on July 8, the Shinn twins joined 260 other kids in this rural Sanilac County school district to begin school two months earlier than Michigan’s agrarian school calendar normally calls for. They’ll be in class the same number days as students on a traditional school calendar, but with three-week breaks spread through the year.
With the state scrambling to find ways to improve academic achievement through teacher evaluations and tenure reform, a few districts are experimenting with a simpler remedy – changing the days kids are in school. Croswell-Lexington is one of about 30 Michigan districts and charter schools opening their classrooms in the summer. It’s an effort to combat “summer learning loss,” which some studies indicate is a major cause of the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students.
Does changing the school calendar help? No one is sure. Michigan doesn’t keep tabs on the number of students in year-round programs, or their academic growth compared to other students.
Croswell-Lexington Superintendent Kevin Miller believes it’s worth a shot. “Our calendar is sadly outdated,” he said “We’ve known for years it was the right thing to do.”
Year-round school programs are growing slowly in Michigan, with a half-dozen additional districts this year asking for waivers allowing school to start before Labor Day.
A typical year-round schedule has students in class for nine weeks, then off three weeks.
“We’re dairy farmers and we can’t get away as much in the summer,” said Patti Shinn.
“Having more time in the winter with the boys is a plus.”
Miller hoped to convince families of 100 students to try the year-round schedule in Croswell-Lexington’s first year. Instead, 262 children – a full third of the district’s elementary students – signed up.
“We’d planned on K-4 (year-round classes),” Miller said. “We had to add fifth and sixth grade by popular demand.” Next year, the district plans to add a year-round option for seventh- and eighth-graders.
In the district, families choose whether to be in the year-round program or to enroll in a traditional schedule, with both programs operating in the same buildings. Students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in math over the summer. The loss is particularly severe for low-income children, who typically don’t have the same summer learning opportunities as those available to their wealthier classmates. Almost two-thirds of students attending Croswell-Lexington qualify for free and reduced lunch.
After one week of the year-round classes, teachers at Croswell-Lexington bragged about leading the most high-achieving classes they’d ever had, said Director of Instruction Julie Western.
“I told them that’s because they’ve only been out of school for three weeks,” Western said.
Horizon Elementary in Holt has operated on a year-round schedule for 20 years. The program is so popular that there is a waiting list to get in, and the district is switching a second elementary to a year-round schedule this fall.
“Our state is ripe for change,” said Horizon Principal David Hornak. “We should be asking, ‘Why are we doing school the way we do?’”
Students in Horizon’s year-round program score better on standardized tests than students in other elementaries in the district, and beat the state average. Hornak attributes student achievement partly to the year-round schedule that eliminates summer learning loss, but also admits that students at Horizon are from higher-income families than the state average.
Research on the academic impact of year-round schools is mixed, and the programs tend to cost more money because of the need to cool the classrooms in the heat of summer.
Because the state doesn’t track academic growth in year-round programs versus classrooms following a traditional calendar, Michigan residents can’t gauge the costs and benefits.
“I hope to see some benchmarks to demonstrate whether it helps academically,” Patti Shinn said. She’s not waiting for those benchmarks though to drive her kids to school this summer.
“It’s a better system,” she said. “It’s what the system should be.”
Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.