Districts That School Year-Round

In a handful of systems, every school follows a year-long calendar by Ann McGlynn

Robert Smotherman wanted to increase the quality of time students spent in classrooms in the Bardstown, Ky., school district. Changing the district’s five schools to a year-round calendar seemed to be a logical route: Break up vacations into smaller pieces and offer remedial and enrichment activities during those shorter breaks.


He knew the man he had to convince was the varsity football coach in the “football-crazy town that we are,” Smotherman notes. The new calendar, with its fall break and earlier start, could be perceived as a threat to the sport. He sent the head coach and his assistant to a seminar sponsored by the National Association for Year-Round Education, or NAYRE, in San Diego.

“They came back raving about this program, saying we ought to go here,” says Smotherman, who now serves as NAYRE’s president.

Nearly 10 years since the two football coaches traveled to the workshop on year-round schooling, the 1,800-student district located 40 miles southeast of Louisville has a higher ACT composite score, a higher percentage of seniors attending college, fewer discipline referrals to the office and a lower dropout rate.

Other factors besides the year-round calendar could have played a role, Smotherman concedes, but he is encouraged by what has happened in his school district. “We took a chance back then,” he says. “We were afraid of losing kids, and money is kids. But we had done our homework and spent a lot of time looking at this thing. We finally decided to go and truly have never looked back.”

Various Options

A year-round calendar shortens the summer break and increases the length of other breaks during the school year. Several variations of year-round calendars fit under two categories: multitrack and single-track.

A multitrack calendar generally breaks children into four groups. Three groups of children attend the school at any one time to allow a school to accommodate more students. A single-track calendar allows all children to attend the school at the same time. The fall and spring breaks generally are longer, the semester ends before the winter break and summertime is at least a couple of weeks shorter.

While roughly 3,000 individual schools have gone to a year-round calendar, less than a dozen school districts across the country have decided to change wholesale to the year-round calendar, according to NAYRE. Every school in those districts, from Bardstown to Rock Island, Ill., to Socorro, Texas, is on a year-round calendar.

Opposing Views

The year-round movement has strong proponents and opponents.

The NAYRE, the principal advocacy group, believes changing to a year-round calendar “minimizes learning loss that occurs during a typical three-month summer vacation.” The organization’s executive director, Marilyn Stenvall, says year-round scheduling is a trend that shows no signs of subsiding. But she also warns it is not easy to move a school or an entire district from a traditional calendar to a year-round calendar.

“It takes a lot of enthusiasm,” Stenvall says. “It takes hard work. It’s above and beyond your day job. If you’re in education as an administrator to make a difference, this is the vehicle to do it with. There is a tremendous satisfaction that you can change a basic structure and meet the needs of kids.”

However, a Texas-based organization known as Time to Learn believes year-round calendars are not the way to reform education. “Simply giving our children more of the same instruction, or at different times during the year, has not been the answer to educational woes,” says Tina Bruno, the group’s executive director. She questions whether year-round is growing as fast as NAYRE and other boosters claim it is.

“Calendars don’t teach kids, teachers do,“ says Bruno, executive director of Time to Learn. “There are a lot of other ways to improve education.”

Voluminous research supports both positions, the NAYRE and Time to Learn contend. They serve as clearinghouses for studies that further their respective stances in hopes of influencing school boards and other policymakers.

District Examples

NAYRE cites the stories of districts that decided to place all their schools on a year-round plan:

* Socorro Independent School District, which serves the eastern portion of El Paso, Texas, as well as two communities along the Mexican border. The district went year-round in 1990 to help ease overcrowding in a district that has doubled its enrollment in the past decade. The school district, with 28 schools, now is considered a recognized district in the state, the second highest designation the Texas Education Agency bestows on a school district based on student test scores.

* Valley View School District in Romeoville, Ill., is believed to be the first district in the United States to go entirely year-round when it made the switch in 1970. District officials decided to return to a traditional calendar in the district’s schools when its enrollment declined and the district no longer needed year-round education to fit all of the students into its buildings. The district has 18 schools.

* Murrieta Valley, Calif., Unified Schools outside Los Angeles went year-round to cope with an exploding enrollment in the school district. The district, now operating 12 schools, has enough school space today, thanks to several building projects, so the district decided to create its own calendar.

* Rock Island-Milan School District, an urban district in northwestern Illinois serving an area with declining enrollment, is in its first year of year-round operations. Superintendent David Markward says the 6,500-student district will evaluate whether to keep the calendar at its 17 school sites at the end of five years.

* Bardstown, Ky., with 54 percent of the district’s students qualifying for the federal lunch program, is in its seventh year of a year-round calendar.

Contested Merits

Stenvall, the executive director of NAYRE, was the principal at a school in the Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, Calif., when it decided to go to a year-round calendar in the late 1980s. It took three years to convince the school board, faculty and parents to give year-round a try.

“It worked for our students,” she says. “It’s not perfect. It doesn’t answer all problems, it doesn’t do everything for everybody.”

While there are school districts that must implement a multitrack year-round calendar to alleviate overcrowding, Stenvall says, the first goal must be to improve student achievement. She never has seen research that shows students lose ground academically on a year-round calendar. “That’s the acid test for any change in education. There are other benefits, too. But that’s certainly first, last and foremost.”

Year-round is not a new concept, according to a history compiled by NAYRE. An extended school schedule in 1904 in Bluffton, Ind., is considered a forerunner to year-round education. Park Elementary School in Hayward, Calif., is viewed as the first year-round school in the modern era, adopting the calendar in 1968. It remains the longest-running year-round school in the nation.

The Valley View School District in Romeoville, Ill., became the first year-round district in 1971, NAYRE says.

The number of public schools with a year-round calendar increased from 410 in 1985 to 3,059 in 2000, the organization says, and the number of students on a year-round calendar grew from about 350,000 in 1985 to nearly 2.2 million in 2000, more than a fivefold increase.

Leaders who are considering a change to a year-round calendar must hold conversations with the community and teachers, know the reasons why a change will better a school or district and then maintain support with public evaluations. The move to year-round schooling often is a catalyst for other changes, in curriculum, staff development and parent support—"something parents really can rally around," Stenvall says.

Tina Bruno, whose organization opposes nontraditional schedules, knows plenty of parents who do not support a year-round calendar, some of whom have created websites to fight the proposed move in their communities.

Her organization sees year-round calendars as a short-term answer to overcrowding that rarely improves test scores, does not save money, causes rifts in communities and makes it hard for teachers to participate in summer training programs to better themselves.

More schools are dropping year-round education than proponents care to admit, Bruno claims. Since the 1995-96 school year, 508 of the 2,413 year-round schools, or roughly 21 percent, abandoned the calendar, a study by Time to Learn shows. The organization took a NAYRE list of schools on a year-round calendar in 1995 and compared that to the 2000 list, Bruno said.

Socorro’s Success

The 27,000-student Socorro Independent School District is one of Texas’ 471 recognized districts, according to the Texas Education Agency. Its ranking has bettered since the implementation of year-round education.

The school district, which borders Mexico, has seen its enrollment of poor students steadily increase to 50 percent since the mid-1990s. The number of non-English speakers also has escalated.

The district, which operates 28 schools, first decided to go to year-round to alleviate overcrowding, Assistant Superintendent Sue Shook says. Now, the district is staying with year-round even though building projects are relieving the overcrowding pressures.

Socorro runs what are called intersessions with remedial and enrichment lessons during the three-week breaks. Students who need help are given the chance to catch up during the school year, rather than just in summer school.

“We were waiting and letting the kids fail and trying to catch them up in a short time,” she says. “We first target those in the greatest need. If a child can add three to six weeks to their school year, they are able to master skills. They catch up with classmates.”

During intersession in Socorro, the school libraries remain open and school nurses are available. The secondary schools are alive with students involved in extracurricular activities.

The year-round calendar costs the school district about $30 additional per student, Shook says. The district transitioned into the new calendar by offering both calendars at first. Two years in, every school was on a year-round calendar.

The community also must be convinced that it is the right thing to do for students, Shook says.

The Socorro district created a task force and held community meetings. Rumors were dispelled with what Shook called “Hot Sheets.” Whenever she heard a false rumor about year-round, she printed the topic on a brightly colored piece of paper and corrected the false impression. The sheets were sent home with every student on the day Shook heard the rumor.

A group of people was assigned to tackle problems for the first couple of years on the new calendar, she said. Two teachers left when the calendar started, but now 100 teachers apply for every open position.

“It has built a lot of pride, bonding and camaraderie,” she says. “We’re a better community because of it.”

Valley View’s Reversal

The official name of the Valley View School District 365U has a year-round ring to it. The number of the unified school district—as in days in a year—was chosen because at about the same time an elementary and high school district merged together, the schools were going to a year-round calendar, a former assistant superintendent, John Lukancic, says.

But the district, which turned to year-round to ease booming growth, now is back on a traditional calendar.

“We ran out of bonding power,” Lukancic says. “Over a period of time, we passed 23 bond issues in a row. We couldn’t have built if the people said yes. Given the growth, we were facing double sessions as a permanent way of life or 50 or 60 kids in a classroom. The then-superintendent thought about using the buildings for a greater period of time.”

Administrators held coffee klatches at homes. They spoke at meetings. They convinced the public that year-round education was the way to ease the overcrowding. In 1970, the district went to a multitrack year-round calendar.

“We talked to people in terms of being able to house students,” he says. “We worked closely with the park district and churches so when kids were out of school, we tried to see the park district would offer programs in their neighborhood.”

Children were grouped by neighborhood. Teachers had several different contract options. The year-round schedule worked. Then the growth stopped. Year-round was no longer needed to solve space problems, Lukancic says. The district, he adds, did not have the money to keep a year-round schedule for educational purposes.

“We fought to get on and we fought to get off,” he says. The district ended year-round education in 1980, 10 years after its start there.

Murrieta Valley in California, a mostly white, middle-class school district near San Diego, was forced to go to a multitrack year-round calendar in 1990 when an explosion in enrollment left the district with not enough classrooms. In 1989, the district had 2,400 students. More than 13,000 students attend school there this year.

The building projects caught up and in 2000, the district went to a single-track calendar that starts in mid-August and ends in mid-June. The first semester finishes before the winter break.

With multitrack, Guy Romero, director of assessment, research and academic projects, says, “you’re going to kill your administrators.” Planning time is cut back and staff development is hard to accomplish with teachers on different schedules.

“You do begin to tear apart at teamwork,” Romero says.

To assign tracks, the school district had parents fill out a card. Administrators put those cards into a drum, pulled them out one-by-one and placed them on a board under A track, B track, C track or D track. “One mom sat there for six hours” to see if her child received the track that she wanted, Romero says. A promise to keep families on the same track through the years proved challenging.

If a district is going to a multitrack calendar to alleviate overcrowding, make sure the community understands that, he says. “The quickest answer is to find someone to write a check to build the schools,” Romero adds.

Rock Island's Initiation

Beach balls hung from the ceiling of a kindergarten room when students headed back to classes in early August in the Rock Island-Milan School District in Illinois. Aug. 7 marked the first day of what administrators say will be a five-year trial period for districtwide year-round education in the northwestern Illinois school district.

A bond issue provided the air conditioning. A parent committee provided the guidance.

“It changed from schools qualifying to let’s let everybody have a chance,” says Superintendent David Markward, who was able to take his first October vacation in 31 years as an educator. “We looked at our calendar as perhaps there was something better to do.”

The district has 6,500 students with 17 schools. Each hosted a public meeting about changing the calendar. Markward met with the staff from each building. The school district sent a survey out, asking if the community wanted to change the calendar. An overwhelming majority said yes. The district placed copies of research throughout the community to inform residents of the pros and cons of year-round education.

“We said if the community does not want to do this, we won’t,” Markward says.

The district held prize drawings, open to those who registered on time, to increase the number of students who attended the first day of school.

Markward estimates year-round education will cost the district $100,000. He hopes better attendance, and therefore more state aid, will help cover the cost. Administrators, school board members and the community will evaluate students’ progress annually. A final decision as to whether the district will stick with year-round should come in five years.

The preponderance of evidence supported year-round, Markward says. “We knew with great confidence it would do no harm. We believe it will do some good.”

Bardstown's Bet

Robert Smotherman, Bardstown's superintendent, admits the performance results are not dramatic. But the improvements since the district went to a year-round schedule are evident and steadily increasing.

Attendance is up about 1 percent. The percentage of A’s and B’s on student report cards is up nearly 4 percent, while the percentage of D’s and F’s has declined more than 2 percent. The ACT composite score for the district is up about a point. The percentage of seniors who attend postsecondary rose from 62 percent to 80 percent and discipline referrals are down 20 percent since 1994-95, the last year on a traditional calendar.

“Kids are more relaxed, teachers aren’t as burned out,” Smotherman says.

Bardstown students attend school for nine weeks, then have three weeks off. Intersession classes for remediation and enrichment are offered. Children are charged for enrichment classes, but not for remediation.

Under the traditional calendar, he says, “education begins and ends. We were into that groove pretty heavily. A child who had fallen behind by October was behind all year. There was no place to stop that train.”

The district spent a couple of years examining the issue. A formal committee, established in 1994, studied for six months and voted 13 to 3 to suggest the board change the calendar. The board voted unanimously to do so.

“It is a local decision and that's the way it ought to be,” Smotherman says. “It also should be an open decision.”

Business leaders joined in support of the plan, saying they like the idea of hiring students during breaks to allow regular employees a chance to take time off. Vacation bible school and recreation programs rearranged their schedules, and families “go on very inexpensive and beautiful vacations in October,” Smotherman says.

“I suspect in Bardstown, the support level is 98 percent plus,” he says. Year-round costs the district, which has an $11 million operating budget, about $25,000 a year. The extra money predominately pays for additional busing during intersessions and for a staff member to direct those intersessions, he says.

“It’s not a panacea," Smotherman says, "but to the opponents, I would say let your cultural and personal traditions at least sit on the sidelines while you examine the issue."

Ann McGlynn is a free-lance education writer in Davenport, Iowa. E-mail: annmcglynn@yahoo.com