Schools for all seasons

MARY McIVER November 16 1987

Schools for all seasons

MARY McIVER November 16 1987

Schools for all seasons


For more than a decade Los Angeles has been one of the few models for a widely discussed idea in education: keeping elementary and secondary schools open yearround. Advocates of 12-month schools say that they alleviate classroom crowding, make more efficient use of existing facilities and save money on new construction. Because of such considerations, several schools in greater Los Angeles have adopted year-round calendars, with shorter breaks scattered throughout the year replacing the traditional summer vacation. But a recent move on the part of the local school board to make the system mandatory throughout the area has sparked a furious debate and forced the board to reconsider its decision.

In 1974 the Los Angeles Unified School District board of education, whose jurisdiction includes the city of Los Angeles and some smaller adjacent cities, began implementing year-round calendars in some schools to ease overcrowding. Since then, 91

schools—representing 15 per cent of the schools and containing nearly one-quarter of the area’s student population—have operated on a yearround system. The success of that experiment and the need to accommodate a growing school population led to the board’s decision last month to

Parents1 objections range from the vagaries of the weather to the prospect that the quality of education would decrease

put all 618 schools and 592,000 students on a year-round schedule beginning in July, 1989. But a week later, because of strong objections from parents, the board voted to reconsider the issue and to vote again in five months.

Despite the perceived advantages of year-round systems, they have lit-

tle popular appeal in many elementary and secondary school systems. Most countries in the northern hemisphere have school years that begin in September and go through to June —and that tradition is firmly entrenched. Crawford Kilian, education columnist for the Vancouver Province, said that in Canada “we are stuck in an agrarian pattern that goes back to a time when the kids were needed to bring in the crops.” For his part, William Kirkwood, executive assistant to the deputy minister of education in Ontario, said that although local school boards are free to begin the school year whenever they wish, to his knowledge no board has ever departed from the norm.

But in California, with its pleasant year-round climate and trendsetting spirit, educators are more willing to depart from tradition. And because the state attracts thousands of new residents each year, many with young families, the schools are also faced with the challenge of accommodating the area’s rapidly escalating school population—which the board estimated would grow at a rate of 14,000 a year in the next few years. That could require as many as a dozen new schools to be built annually at a cost of at least $100 million. Board president Rita Walters, who supports the

plan, said that although the board would still have to build more schools under a year-round system, if it went into effect as scheduled, in some existing schools “we could house 25 to 50 per cent more students.”

The plan would implement two different systems—multi-track and single-track—both of which currently operate in year-round schools. Under the multi-track system, designed for areas where overcrowding is most se-

vere, students are randomly divided into four groups and, at any given time, three of those groups attend school while the fourth is on holidays. Under the single-track system, all students in a school follow the same year-round schedule. When board officials announced their decision to extend year-round schooling district-wide, they had not worked out the details of the calendar. But the board was considering cycles con-

sisting of 45 weekdays of classes followed by three weeks of vacation, as well as cycles of 60 school days and 20 days of vacation, and 90 school days and 30 days of vacation. Under the option most favored by elementary schools, students would have onemonth vacations in August, December and April.

The notion of year-round schooling has been the subject of public debate for several years, with Los Angelesarea parents eagerly crowding into hearings on the issue. Although many parents complained about the difficulty of co-ordinating family vacations with the new school year, working parents were particularly concerned that the out-of-school facilities on which they now depend— day care centres and summer camps—do not operate on a yearround basis. Last year the board wanted to convert Franklin Avenue Elementary, a traditional school in Los Angeles, to a year-round system and bring in 100 more students. But Muriel Balian, whose two children attend Franklin, joined the protest, and officials shelved the plan. Balian says that such a system “would be almost impossible” for single parents like herself. She added, “The facilities for child care are just not there.”

The quality of education is an issue

hotly debated on both sides. Parents and educators who are in favor of year-round systems say that short breaks make for better learning. Said Chester Finn, chief of research for the Washington-based U. S. department of education: “Kids forget a lot if they don’t have to think a thought or read a book for 3x/2 months.” For her part, Suzanne Hofmann, principal of Lassen Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley, which adopted a year-round system in 1974, claims that her school’s single-track system, with 45 school days alternating with 15 weekdays of vacation, benefits both teachers and students. Hofmann, who came to the school in 1981 after 23 years in traditional schools, says that short and frequent breaks promote better teacher attendance and result in less “burnout.” And she pointed out that review time for students, which in traditional schools often continues “well into October” after a long summer break, is lessened. She said that her daughter, who attends a traditional school, “forgot her flute lessons over the summer”—an unlikely possibility in a school with a year-round schedule.

But Barbara Romey, a leader of a Los Angeles-based opposition group called QUEST (Quality Education for Students), said that too many breaks detract from students’ ability to concentrate on serious subjects, “especially in the upper grades with algebra and geometry.” And some parents say that because year-round schools offer few extracurricular activities, children have nothing constructive to do during their mini-vacations. Said Balian, who plays the piano for a music teacher at a local school on a multi-track system: “For three weeks the kids sit around at home and watch television.”

Rita Walters acknowledges that the board’s plan “does involve farreaching change—and change is difficult to accept.” She also conceded that the lack of year-round recreational facilities and day care centres is a pressing problem. But she added that such drawbacks are temporary. Said Walters: “The market forces will adjust themselves —and that is one of the advantages of putting the whole district on the system.” Indeed, with year-round systems already in place, that factor may give the plan the momentum it needs for district-wide implementation. Still, it is clear that, even in trendsetting California, some traditions die hard.

-MARY McIVER with ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles, DEBORRA SCHUG in Vancouver and ROBERT ABATE in Toronto