The main item on the agenda for the Board’s November mid-month meeting last week was a preliminary discussion of the school system moving to a year-round schedule, which is now referred to as a “balanced calendar.”
The idea of year-round school is not new in Knox County, but was most recently incorporated into the KCS 2020 Strategic Plan. (That’s the Strategic Plan that the previous board adopted in the “emergency vote” last August, before the new board members were sworn in.)
“This is an item that was identified in our five year Strategic Plan, Excellence for Every Child, as a concept to explore, and to see if this is something that would be right for our school system and our community,” said Superintendent Dr. McIntyre.
Dr. McIntyre described the concept as “sort of a non-traditional calendar that allows for more frequent breaks between academic periods, that allow for potentially intervention and enrichment for students, and would ultimately, also, one of the tradeoffs is a slightly shorter summer, potentially.”
As is customary with new programs being pushed by the KCS administration, board members were given a presentation by school officials. The administration is to be applauded for presenting both advantages and disadvantages to adopting a balanced calendar. The presentation is available as a link to the November 19 agenda (knoxschools.org/Page/2110)
On the plus side, modifying the calendar would potentially increase instructional time by providing opportunities for intervention and enrichment throughout the school year rather than waiting until summer break.
A balanced calendar purports to mitigate against summer learning loss, improve attendance and reduce discipline problems, provides opportunities for teachers to earn additional compensation, and provides opportunities for professional development.
Disadvantages include inconclusive data on academic gains, impact on family vacations; required changes to traditional community activities such as athletics, summer camps, and reduced summer employment opportunities for both high school students and teachers.
If the modified calendar is not implemented system-wide (which is not unusual in larger districts), it could result in different schedules for students and parents, and there could be huge increases in cost if intercessions are used for extended learning time.
As always, the devil is in the details. And there were few details available during last week’s preliminary discussion. This much we know: There are various schedules and models for year-round school. The two most popular are the 45/10, and the 45/15 schedules.
These models incorporate the current schedule of four quarters of approximately 45 days (9 weeks), but these are divided by longer fall and spring breaks of 10 to15 days (two – three weeks). The Christmas break would remain the same or slightly longer: two to three weeks.
Currently KCS has a two day fall break, a two week Christmas break, and a one week Spring break. Under the most likely balanced calendar plans (45/15 and 45/10), the summer break would be reduced from the current 11 weeks for students to somewhere between 5 and 9 weeks, respectively. Summer break for teachers is about a week shorter than for students.
Another variable is how the break time (“intersessions”) would be used. Average and above average students might simply have longer fall and spring breaks, with the days redistributed from the traditional summer vacation. Or they could attend “enrichment” classes during the intersessions.
Proponents of year-round school point out the value of increased instructional time for some students, so there could be 1 to 2 weeks of instruction during the fall and spring intersessions for students needing intervention, in addition to traditional summer school options.
The KCS presentation lists several districts currently using a balanced calendar: Alcoa City, Maryville City, Oak Ridge City, Washoe Co (NV), Cobb Co (GA), Wake Co (NC), and Emerald Academy (Knox Co Charter).
Further research shows that of the list, only Washoe County NV uses a 45/15 model. Most other districts use a modified 45/10 model. Forty of 163 schools in Wake Co NC use the 45/15 (multi-track method); the majority are elementary schools, and this is largely to mitigate a student population explosion and overcrowding.
Oak Ridge Schools will complete the transition to a 45/10 modified calendar beginning in 2015-2016. Oak Ridge’s Willow Brook Elementary has been on a 45/15 year-round schedule since 1997, but will move to the 45/10 calendar with the rest of the district. Emerald Academy charter is scheduled to open in 2015 under a 45/10 calendar.
There are many, many variables involved in a decision as fundamental as the school calendar for a district the size of Knox County. With roughly 50,000 families with students in 89 schools, this is not a decision to be made lightly.
Which model is best? Should students be required to attend enrichment or intervention sessions? Is there a benefit to simply re-arranging the school calendar and not strongly encouraging or mandating students needing additional instruction to participate? What are the costs, and are those costs worth it, if they can close the achievement gap?
Dr. McIntyre said he didn’t feel it would be as useful or beneficial if additional learning opportunities (intervention/enrichment) aren’t offered, but stopped short of saying he would “mandate” participation due to policy and legal implications.
Student Rep. Adam Hasan said he attended a student forum that morning at West High School, specifically to talk to students about balanced calendar. He said a very diverse group of students spoke of both pros and cons, and their concerns.
He said, “Things the students talked about were summer jobs, exchange programs, programs like Governor’s School…also, to follow up on college visits, I really do agree that fall break is a very important time and it needs to be a bit longer just two days.
Karen Carson pointed out that the board had this discussion six years ago, with much talk, surveys, etc., and at the end, it still came out 55 (against) to 45 (for). She said, “My guess is no matter how much of that we do, we’re gonna be pretty darn close to the same thing here.” She added, “I frankly don’t have a strong preference for either at this point.”
Board member Doug Harris suggested that KCS poll districts who had adopted the balanced calendar. He said, “I can say anecdotally that people I know that live in Maryville, they said that it was probably about the same percentage of people who wanted it and didn’t want it, and now everybody loves it.”
But many systems across the nation have “tried and rejected” a year-round school or balanced calendar measure. The website www.summermatters.com/ has a detailed (but not terribly current) list of 362 school systems that have tried and rejected year-round school/balanced calendar, and more that considered it and rejected it before trying it.
Cost is one major factor. In fact, Knox County (or the Farragut school system at the time) tried a form of year-round school in the West Knox area during the mid-1970s. The Farragut school system saw an increase of cost for instruction, maintenance, fixed charges, food services, transportation, and plant operations. The cost increase for the 1974-1976 Extended School Year experiment was 35%. The experiment, planned for three years, ended after just two years.
Metro Nashville (MNPS) considered implementing a balanced calendar in 2011. The board narrowly defeated a plan to begin school on July 25. The proposal would have required $20 million in additional funding.
Instead, a later start date of August 1 was approved beginning in 2012. There are two intercession periods in this calendar: three days in October, followed by two days of Fall Break, and a full week in March, followed by a week of Spring Break. The last day of school is May 24.
And as Dr. Alvez mentioned in the presentation, the research is mixed on the academic benefits of year-round or balanced calendar schools.
A 2012 study by Steven McMullen and Kathryn E. Rouse of Elon University found that “a year-round calendar doesn’t benefit the average student. Because these schools offer more breaks to make up for being in school year-round, students end up learning the same amount of material.”
In response to claims that year-round school provides academic benefit to students across the board, a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (2102) on all year-round schools in Virginia notes that, “research finds limited academic impact of year-round schools, but that certain student subgroups may benefit…overall there is no measurable academic benefit to the year-round school.” And, with regard to academic performance and test scores, a 2010 study by Amery Wu and Jake Stone (Journal of Educational Research and Policy Studies) on whether year-round schools in California had an effect upon the outcome and growth of schools’ Academic Performance Index (API) scores found that “year-round schools failed to affect either measure.”
Finally, “summer learning loss” is a controversial term. Many children, especially those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, actually experience gains in reading over the summer. But an achievement gap clearly exists – and is widening – for children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Because the meeting was an extended work session, there was no vote whether to move to year-round school.
Dr. McIntyre summarized that he generally heard a “consensus among the board to move forward with a full conversation and dialogue with our community.” He also said he heard the need to think about the methodology…narrowing the choices to 2 or 3 models, and put a price tag on it.
If the community and board ultimately decide to adopt a year-round calendar, it will be at least two years (2016-2017), and maybe longer, before the change would take place.