Seven Rules to YEAR-ROUND SCHOOLING
by GARY A. KNOX
Research and Dialogue Make Implementation Possible
Readers of the daily newspaper weather pages know three things about Yuma, Ariz. Yuma stands last in the alphabetical listing of National Weather Service reporting stations. Yuma typically appears in the reddest portion of the national weather map. Yuma is often the nation’s hot spot.
Our local newspaper headline on June 27, 1990 read: “Heat Wave Continues to Hammer Yuma.” What the headline did not say was: “Wow! 122 degrees!”
As superintendent of an elementary school system in Yuma, I sat on a hot seat for other important reasons. I had to find ways to avoid overcrowded schools and improve student achievement. Moreover, I had to find solutions–hot weather or not–in a climate of sharply declining revenues.
Two short summers after our record-setting heat, a mid-summer newspaper headline stated: “Many In Crane Start School Soon.” In headline parlance, “soon” meant the following day.
We had found a solution. In short, more than 5,000 students now attend our six schools on a single-track year-round calendar. Year-round means the traditional summer vacation is broken into parts and redistributed in segments throughout the year. A 45-15 schedule allows our students to attend school in four 45-day periods separated by 15-day intersessions (vacations).
Some believed we’d been out in the midday sun too long when we announced we planned to investigate a year-round calendar. Imagine year-round education in a community where the thermometer shatters 110 degrees for weeks on end, breaking the century mark at least four months annually. Some thought us half-baked to even consider this calendar change, but nevertheless we started school in mid-summer on a single-track modified 45-15 calendar.
Executive Director Charles Ballinger of the National Association for Year-Round Education cites our experience as an example of success under improbable circumstances. He has noted that if Yuma can have year-round schools in the hot, low desert climate of southern Arizona, one can implement year-round schooling anywhere.
Year-round education can be implemented anywhere–when the community is ready. That’s what this story is about. Is the community–in our case, a farming community producing most of the nation’s winter lettuce, cauliflower, and broccoli–ready to abandon the nine-month agrarian school calendar? Will a community break from tradition to gain better student achievement, a reduced tax burden, and/or less crowded schools?
Our decision to make this radical move was considered carefully over three or four years. The decision emerged after extensive research and considerable community dialogue. As we reviewed, cussed, discussed, and shaped a workable year-round education plan, I came to realize some essential rules to bring effective implementation in an unsure community.
* Implementation Rule No. 1: Do your homework before seriously initiating the idea of year-round education with your community.
Before you talk about year-round education, know what this concept means. Know how a year-round education structure can work. Know the difference between single-track and multi-track. Understand 45-15, the Orchard Plan, Concept Six, and other typical year-round education calendars. Know major drawbacks. Know the difference between real problems and false perceptions.
Our dialogue with parents and staff started with literally dozens of general questions, such as:
* How can we keep energy costs to a minimum during the hot summer months?
* How is a concentrated physical cleaning of a school to be done?
* How are classrooms shared?
* How will classes be organized?
* What assurance do we have about siblings being on the same track?
* What happens to interscholastic athletic programs?
Be prepared to respond to a broad array of questions. We had reasonable replies, but we assigned a community task force the responsibility to investigate and give answers.
A Public Process
* Implementation Rule No. 2: Involve your community in making recommendations about a possible year-round conversion.
To involve our community we met with residents. We talked to parents. We held public forums. We met in schools. We spoke in homes. We sent information home with students. We talked to staff. We brought the governing board along, step by step. We published our findings for all to read and review. We answered question after question. We researched year-round education until we knew more than the experts. (Then we picked expert brains to be confident we hadn’t missed anything.)
We formed investigation teams of parents, citizens, business representatives, and staff members. Participants were selected for their open minds, not for their positions on year-round education. We did the things the textbooks suggest.
We used an NAYRE publication, Yea r-Round Education Resource Guidebook, which provides some basic guidelines for moving toward a decision. We adapted those guidelines to our circumstances. In all, five community-based teams helped at various stages in the decision-making process. These teams recommended whether, when, and how to move to year-round education.
* Implementation Rule No. 3: Form a support group to solidify acceptance about the recommendations, since every proposed action has detractors.
As we approached a board decision, four of the five board members told me they supported the year-round education recommendation. While unanimity is preferred, one board member had declared opposition at the outset. Everyone understood well in advance there would be one negative vote.
Then I blundered. I failed to follow Implementation Rule No. 3. Even after a small, vocal, well-organized opposition emerged, I believed the recommendation was secure. Indeed, I actually discouraged formation of a pro-recommendation group. I thought the decision for year-round schooling was firm. After all, board members had told me they supported the recommendation.
My failure to form a support group resulted in much heartache. Voices in opposition forced additional public meetings. We had to poll for parental preferences. Letters to the editor became heated. Board support wavered. Hope for a clear board vote in support of the recommendation appeared dead. While governing board views about the value of year-round education had not changed, the political landscape had!
* Implementation Rule No. 4: Should your path become rocky, encourage those you trust and respect to tell you like it is.
I told my management team that I was discouraged by eroding board support. I considered throwing in the towel. Collectively they said “no!” Principals and directors, certified and classified, understood that year-round education meant better schools. Year-round education would bring better facilities, more learning by our children, and substantial tax reductions or tax avoidance over the years.
This unanimous management team support led to a new plan. We knew families in our district were split between embracing year-round education and continuing the traditional pattern. Our solution, therefore, allowed every family to choose between a 45-15 year-round calendar and a nine-month calendar. This dual-track format was immediately supported by the board and the community. Opposition vanished.
Required to administer two tracks in each school, all principals accomplished the task willingly and enthusiastically. Despite the dual-track complication, our single-track 45-15 experience proved to be better than anyone could have hoped. Only then did year-round education cease to be some theoretical way to educate our students better.
Staff, parents, and students rallied to support the program. Most became convinced it was best for student learning. And those skeptics who were concerned about year-round schools in our hot summers? They too rallied to support the program.
* Implementation Rule No. 5: Develop a multi-year plan for moving toward and fully implementing year-round education.
While “field testing” our two-track experiment, we wrote a five-year plan. If year-round education worked successfully, how would we expand it?
The plan considered our new-found commitment to the year-round format, our anticipated student growth, and our projected annual bonding capacity. Members of the management team made a public presentation of the plan to the governing board. I stayed on the sidelines. The presentation clearly demonstrated to the community that year-round schooling was supported by all principals and administrators.
* Implementation Rule No. 6: Collect data on the issues that are raised within the community as you initiate year-round education, regardless of the size of your first program.
We addressed three major issues. These included the impact of the hot summer months, skepticism about whether a 45-15 schedule would improve learning environments, and questions about perceived prohibitive year-round schooling costs.
We surveyed. We reviewed records. We found that 45-15 students had no problem with the heat; they’d played in it all their lives. Teachers found students needed virtually no review time after intersessions; students appeared to be returning from long weekends.
Authentic assessment data seemed to support broader achievement findings. Electrical costs were within the range previously predicted by our community researchers. (Our schools already were airconditioned. Utility costs increased about 10 percent.) Added salary costs proved minimal as we employed a strategy of reordering work-year patterns to coincide with the new school attendance arrangement.
By collecting data on these issues, we verified the findings and predictions of those who had initially recommended year-round education. They were right. Year-round schooling can be implemented in the summer heat. It does appear to improve student learning and can be cost effective.
* Implementation Rule No. 7: Remain flexible, keeping focused on your real goals.
Year-round education was never our goal. Our two goals were to improve student achievement and delay, if not escape, overcrowded schools. Year-round education was selected as a means to those ends.
As opposition and obstacles arose, we easily worked around them since we weren’t committed to installing a specific year-round education model. We didn’t stray from our real goals. Year-round structure, timelines, participation, etc., shifted without loss of direction because we accommodated emerging concerns.
For instance, at one time or another we variously planned for a 60-20 calendar, separate year-round and nine-month schools, installing the Oxnard curriculum model, and a host of other proposed actions that never experienced the heat of a Yuma day. We remained wedded to finding a way to reach our goals.
Year-round education was not a solution in search of a problem. We pursued year-round education vigorously only after investigations led us to believe student achievement would increase. We found evidence year-round students perform as well as, but usually better than, students on the typical school calendar.
The primary source for this conclusion was the Oxnard, Calif., Elementary School District’s longitudinal study in 1991. This study clearly demonstrates advantages for year-round education students. We were impressed since Oxnard’s demographics parallel ours. Each district serves a large student population of Mexican ancestry. A 1993 review of 13 studies by Leslie Six, a Southern California consultant hired by NAYRE, confirmed the Oxnard academic achievement findings.
Second, our investigators were convinced year-round education could increase classroom space despite restricted school budgets. A host of studies conducted in a variety of settings supported this conclusion, notably those in Jefferson County, Cob. (conducted internally in 1990) and Cherry Creek, Colo. (conducted by Price Waterhouse in 1991), as well as several in California districts (Visalia, 1988; Oxnard, 1991; San Diego City Schools, 1989). Our own experiences in two years lend support to these cost saving/cost avoiding studies.
We also understand the need for a policy spelling out the conditions that determine when a single-track school converts to multi-track. Our experience, confirmed by data from many districts, shows when a school exceeds its capacity by about 15 percent, it becomes cost effective to change to multi-track.
Within a year or two we expect to convert our junior high school from a single-track calendar to a multi-track calendar. With more than 1,150 students, the school is overcrowded. A magnet elementary school also will convert to multi-track because it exceeds its capacity by 15 percent.
Successful conversion to year-round education has helped the Crane Elementary School District attack two problems. The radical calendar change has led to better student learning and it gave us a means to handle significant student growth without increasing bonded indebtedness.
As you weigh a year-round format, consider the seven rules for implementation. You’ll have a stronger program and save yourself and your board members unnecessary heat (regardless of your local weather) when you are well prepared.
A Snapshot of a Movement
Involvement in Year-Round Education in U.S. Public Schools, 1993-94
Number of states 32
Number of districts 366
Number of elementary schools 1,627
Number of junior high/middle schools 171
Number of high schools 82
Number of special schools 25
Total of public schools 1,905
Total enrollment 1,407,377
Source: National Association for Year-Round Education