When 150 educators from around the country gathered in Fayetteville, Ark., about 18 years ago to discuss year-round education, the idea of a public school that ran 12 months a year was a fuzzy concept at best.
"Most people had never heard of it," Wayne White, the Fayetteville school superintendent who organized the meeting, said in a recent interview in Anaheim.
White, now retired, noted that the idea has begun to catch on. One indication of its growing popularity was the attendance at the 18th annual conference of the National Assn. for Year-Round Education, which drew more than 750 educators from as far away as Hawaii to four days of seminars and lectures in Anaheim last week.
Most participants represented school districts that have year-round schools, but a substantial minority were from traditional schools who were there to find out what the all-year system offers.
Year-round education is something of a misnomer, they learned. Students do not attend school 365 days a year. The school doors remain open all year, however, and groups of students on rotating terms keep the school buildings in constant use. The students attend school roughly the same number of days as those on the traditional September-to-June calendar, but they may have vacations in the fall, winter, spring or summer.
Districts with surging enrollments have embraced the year-round calendar primarily to solve space problems, but advocates claim that the approach is educationally sound and even superior to the traditional nine-month system.
When White helped found the national association in 1968, there were "maybe one or two" school districts in the country on year-round schedules, he said. Today, there are 410 year-round campuses in 15 states, according to the association.
Of the more than 350,000 students served by those schools, 38% are enrolled in the Los Angeles school district, making it the year-round capital of the country.
Los Angeles has 93 year-round schools, and the Board of Education plans later this month to decide whether to add as many as 78 more.
The plan has provoked passionate outcries from parents, however, who packed recent board meetings to complain that the possibility of having children from the same family on different school schedules would disrupt family vacations and complicate the already difficult business of arranging for child care. Parents in the San Fernando Valley in particular have characterized the year-round school plan as cruel and inhumane for the children who would have to sit in classrooms without air conditioning during the summer.
Among parents, teachers and administrators at the Anaheim conference, such complaints were well-known. Those who have tried and like year-round education say, however, that such problems are solvable, although they may require a year or more to straighten out.
Year-round school administrators say they are beginning to see definite advantages, such as higher academic achievement, fewer dropouts and happier teachers.
Interest in year-round schooling is "higher now than it ever has been," White said. "That is because a lot of schools are beginning to be overcrowded, and they're looking for solutions. And now we have the research to show that year-round education will work as well or better than the traditional calendar and won't cost them more but, in fact, may cost less."
The 11,000-student Oxnard School District in Ventura County has analyzed the cost effectiveness of the year-round calendar, which it began to phase into its 14 schools in 1976. "We can document that a year-round school can educate each student for $130 less" than a traditional school, said Supt. Norman R. Brekke.
The district uses a calendar that divides the school population into four groups, which are rotated so that only three groups are on campus at the same time. In essence, Brekke said, the system allows a district to run four schools for the price of three, because students share the classrooms, cafeteria and books. The district also has found that because the schools are staffed year-round, the district's losses from vandalism and burglary have been sharply reduced, from $80,000 to less than $10,000 a year.
In addition, the district has saved the cost of building two new elementary schools, which, Brekke said, would have cost $10 million each.
Once enrollment drops back to a normal level, the year-round system may cost more than traditional school calendars, but the district would not have built a school it no longer needs, Brekke said.
Some year-round advocates say that although the savings are attractive, that should not be the primary consideration. In general, however, research on the effect of the program on academic performance has been scarce and not overwhelmingly positive.
In California, the most encouraging statement that a team of consultants for the state Department of Education could make about year-round education was that, at best, it does not appear to impede academic achievement.
"That's good news," said Bill Padia, manager of special studies for the department. "Year-round is not going to hurt. But we can't say it's going to help."
Students in year-round schools tended to score below the state average on the California Assessment Program test of basic skills, Padia said. He cautioned, however, against placing the blame for the poorer performance on year-round programs. The difference may have more to do with the fact that year-round schools enroll a disproportionate percentage of limited-English and minority children, compared to the statewide average.
"That is a reflection of the fact that year-round school is a result of overcrowding," which is occurring primarily in communities affected by rising immigration, said Cathy George, a state Department of Education consultant who helped prepare the report.
Although George acknowledged a general lack of data on academic performance in year-round schools, she said promising results can be found in individual schools or districts.
One such program has been operating in Provo City Schools in Utah, a fast-growing state which for the last several years has run neck-and-neck with California for the dubious distinction of having the largest average class size in the nation. The Provo district, a predominantly white, middle-class district that sends 70% of its high school graduates to four-year colleges, was attracted to year-round school primarily because of the potential academic benefits.
At the end of their second year on a year-round calendar, students at Provo's Westridge Elementary School scored from 14 to 25 points higher on standardized achievement tests than students in the rest of the district, said Adrian Von Mondfrans, a Brigham Young University education professor who helped conduct the study. Westridge, situated in an affluent community, has always been one of the best schools in the district. However, Von Mondfrans said the significantly higher scores could not be ignored.
"This is what is," he said. "I can't say why. Advocates of year-round would like you to say it's because of year-round . . . but you just don't know. Westridge was always one of the best schools, and now it's scoring dramatically higher than before."
Westridge Principal John Bone has no qualms about attributing the gains to the switch to the year-round system. "I think the higher achievement is a direct result of year-round," he said. One reason he cited is a high degree of parent approval. Although there was some initial resistance, 61% of the parents say they now prefer year-round to a traditional calendar.
Another possible explanation for the improvement is that many of the students take advantage of "intersessions," the vacation time between terms, to take additional classes. "Those kids' achievement is up in part because they're in school longer . . . and don't forget as much," Bone said.
Finally, because the complexities of a year-round calendar tend to make for highly organized teachers, Bone said, his teachers are probably better prepared than before. In addition, many teachers have chosen to work year round and earn as much as $5,000 more a year. The potential for higher wages has made it possible for some instructors to give up moonlighting at second jobs, he said, and has encouraged some of the most talented teachers who were tempted to switch to a better-paying field to stick with teaching.