In praise of year-round schooling

This winter, for the first time in years, my two daughters will experience vastly different winter breaks. Katie is a senior at North Hollywood High, which has just reverted to a traditional school schedule. She will be out of school from Dec. 14 to Jan. 7. Frankie is a junior at John Marshall, on the "A Track" of a nontraditional, year-round schedule. She'll be out of school from Dec. 21 to March 3. March 3!

Katie will spend her break at home, finishing college applications and studying for exams. Frankie will spend hers with family friends in Paris, eating pain au chocolat and studying at the Alliance Francaise. Which one sounds better to you?

The Los Angeles Unified School District's year-round school schedule was designed to reduce student overcrowding. Using some weird algorithm of occupancy, the "multitrack" plan eliminated traditional downtimes such as spring break and summer vacation and kept classrooms full for 51 weeks of the year -- leaving rooms vacant only during the last week of December. Experts say the program increased total classroom occupancy by 50% without requiring any new classroom construction. There are currently 199,000 kids -- 29% of the district's students -- going to school on 141 multi-track campuses, according to the LAUSD.

On this schedule, A Track kids like Frankie study from late August to late June, with a big break in January and February and a somewhat shortened summer vacation. Similarly, C Track kids study from early July to late April, with a big break in November and December, and B Track kids take up what's left over, attending school all year except for two long breaks, from late August to late October and late February to late April. Kids on the year-round schedule also have a slightly longer school day than other kids -- but in the end, their school year is 17 days shorter.

Now, however, most campuses are phasing out year-round schooling, and all will have done so by 2012. Education experts seem to agree that year-round schools are an effective stopgap measure at best, but are otherwise unacceptable. Many, noting that Los Angeles has more multitrack schools than New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami and Houston combined, have written that year-round schools produce lower grades, lower attendance and higher dropout rates.

As a parent, then, I am supposed to applaud Katie's return to the traditional school schedule and to wish Frankie were on it too. Most parents I know hate the year-round schedules. They want their kids in school from September to June, and out in summer, with a traditional winter recess for the holidays and a traditional spring break for Palm Springs and Cabo.

I don't. I think the year-round schedule, and especially the A Track, is terrific.

Both of my daughters, in addition to taking summer family vacations, working summer jobs and enjoying the traditional summer hang-time with friends, have gotten excellent value out of their winter breaks, or "intersessions." Katie used one year's holiday to go on an extended class visit to Spain and still had time to squeeze a semester's worth of "health and life skills" into a slightly more intensive six-week class during the intersession -- like attending summer school in the winter. The next year, she toured college campuses in Washington, Oregon and Northern California and still had time to prepare for a tae kwon do black-belt examination in the spring. (She passed.)

Frankie did something similar, eliminating her health and life skills requirement by taking an intersession course at Belmont High one year and fulfilling a physical education requirement by taking yoga at Los Angeles City College another. She still had time to do a driver's training course in advance of her 16th birthday. (She got her license.)

There have been other A Track attractions too. The earlier fall semester start means final exams come before the winter holiday break, not after, so the holidays aren't ruined by studying for -- or not studying for, but worrying about -- finals. The longer school day also means longer class times, which means more time to concentrate on individual subjects. (My daughters surprised me by listing that as an attribute.)

It's not just my kids. One of Frankie's friends spent last winter in China with his father. Another will spend this winter living with an Argentine family and studying Spanish in Buenos Aires. Several of Katie's friends took internships at Universal Studios during last year's intersession, while others attended intersession music classes on campus or scheduled daylong rehearsals for the school's spring performance of "Guys and Dolls." Another friend spent the winter in San Francisco working on a theater production of a musical written by her parents. She also exhibited her art at a gallery show during the same period.

The system isn't flawless, of course. My daughters have complained that year-round occupancy means no downtime for maintenance of the school. Classrooms, cafeterias and bathrooms that are never empty don't get cleaned, painted or repaired often enough. Because the tracks are divided by ZIP Code, both girls say, the tracks get Balkanized along ethnic lines. B Track at Marshall, for instance, draws from a heavily Armenian area and becomes heavily Armenian, while C Track draws from a Latino neighborhood and is more heavily Latino. That shouldn't matter, but when students from one track return to find kids from the other track sitting at "their" lunch tables, territorial squabbling and fighting break out.

The girls also complained that some teachers refused to treat the winter break as a real break, assigning homework and research and scheduling tests for the first day back at school. (Katie spent part of last winter reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." I failed to see a problem in this.) Other teachers, however, accompanied their students on intersession trips to Europe.

Of course, not every family can pay for the kid who wants to go abroad, or arrange activities or supervision for the one who wants to stay home. Families with young children, especially, find a paucity of day camps and day-care programs in January and February. As a work-at-home dad for most of my daughters' school years, I have often wondered how single, working parents work around L.A. Unified's scheduling oddities like "professional development days," "pupil-free days," "shortened days," "minimum days" and "reverse minimum days." I don't know how those parents manage having their A track kids out of school for two months in the middle of winter.

But I know what it's meant to me. Because my wife is a teacher and I am self-employed, we've all had our summers free for long family vacations. And this winter, I'll visit the Louvre and Le Deux Magots and hang out in Paris with Frankie, and not miss the traditional school schedule at all.

Charles Fleming is an adjunct professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He is coauthor of the recently published nonfiction book "My Lobotomy."

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