Education

Summer school

Experimenting with year-round education

DALE EISLER July 14 1997
Education

Summer school

Experimenting with year-round education

DALE EISLER July 14 1997

Summer school

Education

Experimenting with year-round education

Like most classrooms across the country, those at John Wilson Elementary School in Innisfail, Alta., 100 km north of Calgary, are now empty and quiet. But on July 28, those rooms will once again reverberate as 250 students embark on a new academic year. John Wilson is one of 20 schools across Canada—16 in Alberta—experimenting with year-round schooling, an innovative educational schedule allowing for 11 months of classes with several short breaks. “It has worked very well for the families whose children are in the program,” says Norma Lutz, principal of the Innisfail school. “And we have a waiting list of three or four teachers who would like to try it.”

Advocates of year-round education say it has two distinct benefits: the reduction of so-called summer learning loss and relief from classroom overcrowding. In fact, the year-round program at John Wilson was initially established in 1994-1995 as a two-year pilot project to relieve the classroom crunch, but has become permanent.

Parents were offered a choice between a regular academic year and a year-round format with three-week breaks in October, December and early spring. For nine weeks of the year, the student population drops by 250, or one-third, which creates a more relaxed atmosphere in the halls and playground.

But Lutz believes that the real benefits have been educational: absenteeism is lower among year-round students, and she is convinced that, in many cases, academic performance has improved. In a survey of students, teachers and parents at the end of the two-year trial period, more than 90 per cent approved of the program and agreed that it should be adopted permanently. “It has been absolutely great for us,” says Mary

Ann Mulrooney, whose 13-year-old son, Kyle, is enrolled in the program. “He is a bright kid, but he had trouble with the long stretches before getting a break. Now, he looks forward to school.”

But despite those positive reviews, yearround education has been slow to take off in North America. In the United States, 1.8 million students in 41 states attend school yearround, but they represent only four per cent

of student enrolment. “If you talk about what’s best for children, it makes a lot of sense,” says Charles Ballinger, executive director of the San Diego-based National Association for Year-Round Education. “But if people focus on lifestyle—athletics, summer camps and all that—they’re very reluctant to make changes.”

Most frequently, the switch to an 11-month academic year occurs as a byproduct of

changes to the overall school system. In Ontario, Education Minister John Snobelen has asked the provincially appointed Education Improvement Commission to examine class sizes, the length of the school day and the potential for year-round schooling, all as part of much broader reforms. Alberta schools began adopting yearround programs after Ralph Klein’s Conservative government overhauled the province’s school system in the early 1990s. “Originally, we went to year-round because of provincial cutbacks and downsizing,” says Altha Neilson, superintendent of Chinook’s Edge Regional School Division, which includes John Wilson Elementary. “Most people go into it to make better use of their buildings.”

Educators at Sir George Ross Secondary School in London, Ont., are introducing a year-round calendar for 1997-1998 strictly to provide a better learning environment. According to principal Judy Webb, all 540 students who attend the school have learning disabilities or special needs due to emotional or disciplinary problems. They will begin classes on Aug. 6 and are scheduled for two-week breaks in October, December and March, as well as one week in May before finishing in late June. Webb believes that shorter holidays should significantly reduce her students’ learning loss. “Our decision to go

to year-round was based solely on improved learning and achievement,” says Webb. “I believe it’s the right thing to do for all students.” Academically, that may be true. But for Canadians conditioned to two-month school holidays every summer, year-round remains a hard sell.

DALE EISLER

D’ARCY JENISH