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A Change in Those Golden Rule Days : Schools: Switching to year-round operation makes more than economic sense-- there’s something in it for teachers, students and parents.

<i> Allan R. Odden is a professor of education at USC, director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and the father of two children attending public schools in Los Angeles</i>

In the aftermath of a particularly rancorous Los Angeles school-board session last week, a fair number of parents expressed anger at the decision to put city schools on a year-round calendar starting in July, 1991.

But while some may find the change from the traditional school year--adopted in the last century to meet the needs of an agrarian society--unsettling, in truth Los Angeles schools had little choice: There is neither room nor money to build more schools to accommodate an influx of new students. As for the change in summer vacations, the fact is that the alternative vacation periods offered by a year-round schedule are attractive to many of today’s families.

Let’s briefly go back to basics: What is a year-round calendar, and why did the board adopt it? How does it affect the education program, and what needs to be done to make it work?

A year-round calendar does not mean that students attend school all year long. Rather, year-round schooling is an educational concept that eliminates the three-month summer vacation and replaces it with shorter vacation periods distributed throughout the year.

While there are many variations of year-round calendars, the board basically adopted a “90-30" schedule. Within two years, all except a small number of students will be placed on this uniform schedule--students will attend school for 90 days, or 18 weeks, and then have vacation for 30 days, or six weeks. The old midsummer vacation is replaced by two 30-day breaks during the year--a schedule already in use by numerous districts across the country.

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The year-round calendar offers either a “single-track” schedule, with the entire school on one year-round schedule, or a “multiple-track” schedule, with students divided into four groups, only three of which attend school at any one time. For both schedules, students have the same amount of school and vacation time as in the traditional school year.

Single-track schedules are similar to the traditional school calendar, with the school unused during vacation periods. With multiple tracks, classroom space is used all during the year. The multiple-track approach increases by between 25% and 33% the number of students a school can accommodate, thus providing additional classroom space without building new schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District adopted the year-round calendar--the largest system in the country to do so--because student enrollments are rising by 15,000 annually, and there is an urgent need for classrooms. There has been insufficient money in both the district and the state treasury to build or expand schools, and the time line for construction would force more overcrowding even if money was available.

In addition to solving the classroom shortage, there are many potential education benefits of a year-round calendar:

Research shows that achievement does not decline and many studies show achievement increases.

Student and teacher attendance rates often increase, giving students more time with the regular teacher.

Teacher satisfaction is high; studies show teachers like year-round schedules.

Busing can be reduced over the long term and the length of bus trips can be reduced, thus decreasing both transportation costs and the time students are away from home.

Large multiple-track schools can institute a “school within a school” philosophy, with an assistant principal in charge of each track, thus increasing the sense of community--a factor that research has shown improves student performance.

And there are other benefits as well:

The district can receive a per-student state bonus for students in multiple-track schools. In his State of the State speech, Gov. George Deukmejian proposed an expanded state program to induce all districts to adopt a year-round schedule.

The district will move higher on the priority list for state school-building funds, and thus will be able to continue to build new schools and construct additions to current schools.

School operation and maintenance costs per pupil will decrease. Using current schools full time is cheaper than building more schools and using them part time.

Teachers will have expanded opportunities to teach full-time--that is, 12 months of the year, and earn additional money. For the more experienced teachers, teaching year-round could produce an income between $60,000 and $70,000.

Year-round calendars also fit the schedules of increasing numbers of families where the single parent or both parents work, need child care year-round and already have begun taking vacation at times other than during summer months.

The district plans to phase in the uniform year-round schedule, with a goal of increasing elementary-school capacity by 62,121 seats by July, 1992. Each elementary school now on a traditional schedule will be asked to increase its capacity by 23%, either by adopting a multiple-track program, by adding portable classrooms or by increasing class size--the specific strategy is up to the parents and staff at each school. One-hundred-and-nine schools currently on a traditional schedule will need to expand their capacity by 23% next year; all others will need to expand capacity the following year. By July, 1991, when all schools switch to a year-round schedule, the district will be on one common calendar, compared with the variations now in use.

In the transition months ahead, principals and teachers must take the initiative in explaining to parents what the changes entail and what their school must do in order to make them work. They must reassure parents that year-round schooling does not mean harm for the educational program.

Additional equipment and storage space for multiple-track schools are needed to make classroom-sharing work. There should be no set of “rover” teachers--all teachers must share classroom space equally. Classroom sharing can be organized well and fairly; when it is not, teacher morale drops and the notion of year-round schooling is tarnished.

Given the summer heat in the basin and valleys, installing air-conditioning must be a high priority. By adopting a year-round calendar, the district is high on the state priority for air-conditioning funds--and schools that volunteer to adopt a multiple-track schedule will move up on the district’s air-conditioning priority list. In the meantime, the district is investigating possible use of temporary air-conditioning units until permanent cooling is installed.

Parks and recreation departments, Ys, day-care centers, summer camps and businesses providing summer jobs must work with the district to provide these services yearlong, so all students benefit, whatever their vacation period.

The district must take extraordinary efforts to ensure that all siblings in one family are on a common track and provide family choice for the particular track. Most districts find that the bulk of families get either their first- or second-track choice. Some families would rather vacation in early fall when the national parks are not so crowded, or participate in cold-weather sports during winter vacation breaks.

In short, the school board took the right action in switching to a common year-round calendar--schools need the space to house rising student enrollments, educational programs need not suffer and there are new opportunities for improvement. To make this bold move work, what we need now is leadership.


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