Schools Go Year-Round to Ease Crowding : Vista Becomes County's Largest District to Use New Calendar

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Open house in July, what a thought," said Vista schools Supt. Rene Townsend as elementary and middle schools gear up for their first year on a year-round schedule and parent nights in the middle of summer.

The trend toward year-round education in San Diego County schools takes a giant leap forward Monday when the 11 elementary and three middle schools in the Vista Unified School District all move to a year-round schedule, the largest San Diego County school district to make such a move.

But an administrator from Escondido Union School District, the first and only other school district in California to have had all of its schools go on a year-round schedule, warns there are dangers ahead for those attempting to install that timetable districtwide.

"Unless you absolutely have to, you should always have a certain number of schools on a traditional schedule, geographically placed so that parents would have a choice of transferring their children from a year-round school," said Elmer Cameron, retired associate superintendent for the Escondido district. He oversaw the administration of districtwide year-round education.

Escondido Union put all of its 13 elementary and middle schools on a year-round schedule in 1975 after having piloted the program for three years. Six years later, amid parent and teacher unhappiness over not having a choice of schedules, the district returned to a traditional schedule.

Vista Unified's move to year-round schools, together with six schools in South Bay and Cajon Valley school districts, brings to 112 the number of year-round schools in San Diego County.

Year-round education eases overcrowding by putting students and teachers in the same school on different calendars, in effect having more than one school on campus at a time.

Vista's plan, for example, uses a three-track system in which three sets of students will go to class for two months and then have a one month vacation, each set of students alternating vacation months. One-third of the students are on vacation at any given time, thus increasing the capacity of the school by half.

Year-round schools were first introduced to the county in 1971 when six year-round schools sprung up in the Chula Vista and La Mesa-Spring Valley school districts in response to a boom in population. Since then, new schools have been built and growth rates in those two school districts have eased, yet several schools opted to remain on a year-round, single-track schedule.

Vista Unified schools undergoing a similar space crunch are already flooded with more than 300 relocatable classrooms, and some elementary schools are so crowded they have gone as far as installing portable restrooms.

"I would visit schools where what used to be playground space is no longer playground space, there's a relocatable there," said Ron Riedberger, Vista Unified assistant superintendent in charge of coordinating the switch to year-round education.

"Stop and think about a campus built for 600 kids, and now there's 1,000 kids there," Riedberger said. "What does that do to the cafeteria, what does that do to restroom facilities?"

"I have heard many parents say they really don't think year-round is a great solution, but they also realize we don't have any other options," Riedberger said. "Our hands are tied."

Riedberger concedes, however, that not all the schools in the district are overcrowded enough to warrant going to a year-round schedule, and there is hope that a new elementary school will be built in the district sometime in the next three years.

Riedberger said the districtwide implementation of year-round scheduling is an effort to treat schools in the district equitably.

"Year-round has been implemented in a lot of school districts because of overcrowding. And where has the overcrowding been taking place? Especially in districts such as Los Angeles and San Diego. It's taken place in those areas that (have) predominantly minority enrollments," Riedberger said.

"So minority populations have said, 'You're picking on us.' . . . What's interesting is that in some of the other school districts, it was the more affluent people saying, 'Why can't we have year-round, we think it's a good thing.' "

Indeed, some schools that originally implemented year-round education in response to overcrowded schools have decided to keep the system even after the crisis had passed.

"We found that most of our families enjoyed (the year-round schedule)," said John Vugrin, superintendent of Chula Vista city schools where nine schools have opted to remain on a single-track year-round schedule.

"Parents felt that the motivation of their children was increased and they enjoyed the variants in terms of vacation times other than summers," Vugrin said.

Some Vista parents, although they don't like the idea of going to year-round, are resigned to the idea that this is what they have to do.

"It's inevitable, particularly considering what's going on in this district," said Rich Beadle, a Vista parent who worked on the development of the year-round program on the parents' subcommittee.

"I'm not pleased with the particular format that the district chose here, in particular this (calendar) which offers our children the minimum number of school days mandated by the state," said Beadle, whose son is a fourth-grader at Beaumont Elementary School. "I'd like to get as close to the maximum if we could."

Beadle said parents were also concerned that all the tracks have equal access to special programs, such as those for the academically gifted and those needing bilingual services. So far, the district has agreed to provide a gifted program but is still debating whether bilingual services will be available on all three tracks.

The new schedule's effect on day care and after-school activities that normally occur during the summer also concerned parents who now need to find activities for their children every third month, as opposed to three months in summer, Beadle said.

"I think this year it's going to be a lot of testing, and we're just going to have to find out what works and what doesn't work. If the community stays involved in it, I think it's going to work out," Beadle said.

"I think the district has responded well where they could, but I felt in some instances (the parents') participation was tolerated but not exactly welcomed," Beadle said.

Teachers who are more than fed up with overcrowding have resigned themselves to the year-round plan, and are pleased that something is being done.

"The year-round calendar will be a great help in the classroom in terms of giving the teachers really distinct blocks of teaching time and then having them become refreshed and rejuvenated to analyze things they've done (during the frequent breaks)," said Tamara Drean, president of the Vista Teacher's Assn.

"It's going to allow for a higher level of intensity for teachers after eight weeks to sit back and reflect on what they've done," Drean said.

But Drean also expressed concerns over teachers having to share classrooms and space, saying many teachers use instructional tools not easily moved from one classroom to another. Some of those tools, such as science equipment and nature displays, may not be used because of the effort needed to move them, Drean said.

Proponents of year-round education, where vacations are spread out over the year instead of concentrated in the summer, say students are fresher, they retain more of their learning than they do with a three-month summer layoff, and that teachers keep better track of their students' progress.

"Kids right now go to school when we tell them to on a traditional calendar. All of the concerns that we have are adult concerns, not child or student concerns," said Charles Ballinger, executive director of the National Assn. for Year-Round Education and coordinator of year-round education for the San Diego County Office of Education.

"We don't know of any schools whose scores have gone down because of year-round education," Ballinger said.

Ballinger feels that year-round education makes better use of school facilities and, because of the shorter but more frequent breaks, students and teachers attend school at higher rates. The students' learning loss over the three months of summertime is lessened by the shorter breaks, Ballinger said.

Ballinger admits, however, that year-round education demands more organizational skill on the part of the administration and places inconveniences on teachers who sometimes must share classrooms.

The three-track system that Vista Unified plans to use fits more students into the schools, but it lengthens school days by 35 minutes. It also limits the schools' ability to lengthen the school year in the future, said Warren Hogarth, superintendent of the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District.

Moving to a multitrack year-round schedule allows Vista Unified to put off building new schools for up to six years, Riedberger said, although some speculate that the shift gives Vista as little as two years of breathing room.

Another of the advantages to year-round has been to give schools time to determine whether or not building a new school is even necessary.

"We find that growth cycles are seven to nine years long, and then there's a decline in enrollment," Ballinger said. "Therefore the popular question is one of do we build schools on a straight line projection, or do we build to the nine-year cycle and use the current capacity to its fullest."

"I'm almost positive that Vista will follow the usual cycle of growth," Ballinger said.

La Mesa-Spring Valley School District was able to forgo unnecessarily building new schools in the 1970s after it went on a year-round schedule. An enrollment decline several years later forced the district to sell two schools over the next 10 years, and now it is again experiencing increased numbers of students.

"To build too many schools at peak period of enrollments I don't think is wise until you see a concrete enrollment over a long period of time," Hogarth said.

Hogarth said the district saved millions of dollars by going on the year-round schedule and not building new schools.

But while deferring the construction of new schools saves the state and district money, year-round education also has its costs.

Teachers, administrators and support staff generally have to be paid more for working a longer year, and utilities costs for keeping school buildings open all year also increase.

In Vista Unified, some schools face the added problem of the sweltering summer heat, since only four of the 11 elementary schools in the district have air conditioning.

"Some of the schools can be very, very uncomfortable," Riedberger said. "The state says, 'Yes, we have money for air conditioning,' but we haven't seen any of it."

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