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Schools are testing out year-round calendar, but benefits not guaranteed


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By Sara Gregory and Maura Turcotte | The Post and Courier (via AP Storyshare)

A quarter of South Carolina’s 73 traditional public school districts will be following a year-round calendar this academic year.

That’s a dramatic rise from three years ago when virtually no schools operated on this schedule. These 18 districts hope they will see benefits to academics and well-being from a calendar that offers more breaks throughout the school year.

For decades, American schools have followed the rhythms of the traditional calendar: 180 days of class broken up by holidays here and there, along with a longer winter break, and then a lengthy summer hiatus.

Year-round schooling departs from that schedule. While the phrase “year-round” might conjure images of students in class, well, year-round, it is the same number of school days, just spread out differently. Districts on this modified calendar might have nine weeks of classes followed by a week or two of break time. The time off might include extra help for struggling students. Following the break, all students and staff return to school, and the cycle repeats.

Greenwood 50 was an early convert, switching in 2021. Administrators say the first year went well: More students than expected sought extra help during the breaks, and teachers say they feel less stressed. Student test scores have gone up, with the biggest gains in math.

Jenny Risinger, director of induction and professional development for the Greenwood 50 school district, has all teachers in attendance sit down or line the wall while doing exercises to help first-year teachers experience what their students should experience in the classroom in Greenwood on July 11, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff. By Henry Taylor htaylor@postandcourier.com

The district’s year-round plans were underway before the pandemic hit. Greenwood officials thought the calendar might improve the Upstate district’s persistently low state test scores. They saw remediation during breaks as a chance to catch students up before they fell farther behind.

“We felt like we needed to do something,” said Superintendent Steve Glenn. “You do the same thing over and over and over and expect different results, it’s called insanity, right?”

Districts have remained loyal to the traditional calendar despite strong evidence that students lose ground each summer, forcing teachers to revisit old material at the start of every school year. But after the unprecedented learning disruptions over the last two years, districts are more open to alternatives as they consider options to help students recover.

As districts try to figure out how to deal with the lost learning, they’re also struggling with worsening teacher shortages and both student and educator burnout. Administrators have started to see the year-round calendar as a solution to those problems.

But there’s the catch. Few magic bullets exist in education. Researchers who study year-round calendars say there is limited proof they drive academic success better than traditional ones.

Any academic benefits are likely to hinge on whether and how well districts use the extra time for remediation during the school year. Schools can’t require attendance, so they have to design programs that are enriching and enticing enough to draw in students.

Since the modified calendar has only been in place for one year, Glenn hesitates to declare it a complete solution for Greenwood. Still, he is cautiously optimistic and has been telling other school leaders how the schedule is working in his district.

Only time will tell what effect year-round schooling has in Greenwood 50 and the other 17 districts. Crafting a modified calendar that significantly benefits students and teachers is a feat many experts say they haven’t seen happen yet.

Greenwood 50’s experiment

Alyssa Whittle hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about the calendar before Greenwood started considering year-round. The traditional schedule seemed pretty set in stone.

She was working as a student teacher in the district. As the district shared more about the way year-round schools would work, Whittle grew interested in the idea. She could see how students got antsy and less attentive when weeks went by without extended time off.

“Students need those breaks,” she said. “We need it, and they need it.”

Greenwood 50, one of three districts in Greenwood County, has about 8,400 students, according to state enrollment data. The district’s academic performance was low before the pandemic. Only 35.6 percent of its students met or exceeded expectations in English language arts in 2019, below the state average of 45.4 percent, according to state report cards.

Greenwood had a lot of support for a switch to the year-round calendar, which isn’t always the case. District surveys showed 59 percent of parents and staff backed a change. The district decided to start the new schedule in 2021.

First-year teachers line up along the edge of the classroom during an exercise in Greenwood on July 11, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff. By Henry Taylor htaylor@postandcourier.com

Whittle’s first year in the classroom was Greenwood’s first on a modified calendar. The district started school in late July, about three weeks earlier than normal.

By the end of the first nine weeks, Whittle saw in her students the same restlessness she had witnessed as a student teacher. They were ready for a break. Now, there was one — two weeks off at the end of September.

Greenwood scheduled three remediation days during the first week and invited about 2,000 struggling students to attend. About half of them did, a participation rate that exceeded expectations. Enrollment was more than double their summer school attendance.

Whittle signed up to teach during the break. Her school’s principal assigned teachers different grade levels so students would see new faces. That way, students would also experience other teaching styles. Perhaps a new teacher could explain a concept in a different way that clicked. Smaller class sizes also meant more individual attention.

The ability to add instructional time is one of the main benefits to a year-round calendar, said David Hornak, executive director for the National Association for Year-Round Education.

Students have different needs the traditional calendar doesn’t always meet, Hornak added. Some only need 150 days of instruction to do well. Others need 200 school days or more. Right now, they all get exactly the same: 180.Remediation days during breaks can bump up instructional days for those who need it the most. In Greenwood, they’ve effectively added nine days to the school year for those who choose to attend.

Still, other experts are not convinced of the benefits of a modified calendar. Jennifer Graves, a researcher who studies year-round schools, says she is not against year-round schooling. But she has seen academic benefits be neutral at best.

Many administrators think that simply shortening the summer break would improve academics by reducing the summer slide, the learning loss that typically occurs during the lengthy break. But Graves said because the time out of school remains the same — breaks just occur at different times of the year — switching to year-round schooling doesn’t lead to gains.

She found that in lower-income communities, the year-round calendar led to lower academic achievement. In more well-off communities, she saw no difference in academic achievement with the schedule change. During that time out of school, students are exposed, or not exposed, to different learning environments and opportunities that seem to have a bigger influence on academics than the calendar itself.

Graves said the ability of the year-round calendar to improve academics depends on whether and how well districts use the additional breaks for remediation. She sees the potential to boost academics through the additional classroom days — if students who need help show up and if teachers are available to provide quality lessons.

Whittle thought Greenwood planned the remediation days well. She was initially skeptical about how much she and the students could accomplish in three days but realized they could do a lot in a short amount of time. Her students were like sponges; they soaked up the extra attention.

Her students also seemed to be having fun — which administrators believed was crucial since attendance was optional. Greenwood needed students to want to be there during the break, which the district calls an intersession.

“The students would come see me and say, ‘Ms. Whittle, I can’t wait for the next intersession,’” she said.
For the remediation days to work, Graves said, they also require officials to adequately fund them, something she said she again hasn’t seen in her research.

So far, Greenwood has seen success in getting more students to participate during the remediation days than during summer school. Officials have also shifted money from the district’s summer school budget to the breaks. Whether that will be enough to create robust remediation days that impact students remains to be seen.

Teachers joke around with one another outside while rotating to a different instructional class in Greenwood on July 11, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff. By Henry Taylor htaylor@postandcourier.com

The rise and fall of year-round calendars

Paul von Hippel sees districts trot out year-round calendars as a supposedly innovative new approach every few years. The University of Texas professor remains skeptical after years of researching the calendar’s effects on academics.

The traditional school calendar emerged when the country was more agrarian. Year-round schooling has a shorter history, but schools have experimented with it for several decades. After Congress held a hearing on year-round schooling in 1972, the modified calendars grew in popularity until a peak in the 1990s.

Over the years, states and districts have turned to year-round calendars for numerous reasons. In North Carolina and California, officials tried year-round schooling after struggling with overcrowding. In Indiana and Oklahoma, school officials hoped the calendar would boost student achievement by shortening the summer break.

South Carolina districts have mostly stuck to the traditional calendar. Individual schools in the state have experimented with year-round schooling, sometimes leading to scheduling nightmares for families with children at schools on traditional schedules. Beaufort made one of the most concerted efforts with year-round calendars in the mid-1990s — the district has since reverted back — but there’s never been much statewide appetite for the schedule.

A 2006 state law blocks schools from starting before the third Monday in August, unless they receive permission. The tourism industry played a role in that; a later school start means more time for summer travels as well as employment opportunities for teens and teachers working second jobs.

COMPARING TRADITIONAL VS. YEAR-ROUND SCHOOL CALENDARS: Year-round calendars often include shorter summer breaks than traditional ones. They typically follow a pattern: nine weeks of instruction followed by a one- or two-week break. During the time off, some districts offer extra tutoring or enrichment programs. Most districts in S.C. are on a calendar similar to Charleston’s. Those on year-round calendars are more likely to have a schedule similar to Greenwood 50?s. (SOURCE: S.C. DISTRICTS). Brandon Lockett/Staff

Districts across the state are taking a second look at the year-round calendar, spurred by the pandemic’s disruptions and the worst teacher shortage in decades. The local interest mirrors a national trend. Hornak said he gets about three times as many calls a week from interested districts than he did before the pandemic.

But von Hippel predicts this new wave of interest will end like others have. He hasn’t seen many districts stick with the year-round schedule for long. Schools often abandon it when they don’t see academic gains. In fact, prior to the pandemic, he said use of the calendar had been in decline.

“Folks are invariably disappointed,” von Hippel said.

Balancing rest, academics

Whether a district ends up disappointed will depend on their reasons for choosing a modified calendar, said Megan Mitchell-Hoefer, an assistant superintendent in Greenville County. Year-round calendars may offer non-academic benefits that make it worth it anyway.

Greenville County has no plans to abandon its traditional calendar, but Mitchell-Hoefer understands the appeal. She used to be the principal at a year-round school and did her dissertation on the subject, finding modest academic gains in math in a high-poverty Greenville school that was on a modified schedule at the time.
Schools have a broad responsibility to support students beyond academics, she said.

“We have to teach children,” Mitchell-Hoefer said. “But children have to be healthy to learn, and our staff have to be healthy to work.”Many of the districts moving to year-round calendars are looking at it as a way to address growing mental health issues. They see the extra breaks as a way to give weary students and teachers a rest.

“The stress people are feeling is so real,” said Eric Jeffcoat, an assistant superintendent in Aiken County.

Aiken is moving to a year-round calendar in 2023. The district plans to take an approach similar to Greenwood 50 and has scheduled two-week breaks and a few extra days of lessons.

About half of the districts now on modified calendars will be following a similar schedule with their breaks. On average, those districts are adding nine remediation days throughout the school year. The rest of the districts are only looking to add rest days.

Not much research exists on how year-round calendars affect student or teacher burnout. But the longer, more frequent breaks have been cited as a factor in district’s debates almost as much as academics. Better rested students will be more prepared to learn, the argument goes.

But from the research von Hippel and Graves have done, a decision to forgo remediation likely means no academic benefits. And for districts scheduling remediation days, results aren’t guaranteed. Participating students and teachers will have to give up some or all of their breaks for the extra classroom time, which could counter efforts to prevent burnout.

Whittle, the Greenwood teacher, said the two-week break was key for her. If it had just been one week, as some districts have scheduled, she is not sure she would have volunteered to teach. She felt she still had plenty of time to rest after the remediation days.

Mitchell-Hoefer said districts need to be clear about what their goals are when they decide to switch. The motivation might be academics or mental health. Or it could be as simple as giving families the option to travel throughout the year. Every district will have their own reasons.

Scheduling dilemmas

Keith Price, superintendent of Georgetown schools, sees merit in changing the calendar for many of the same reasons other S.C. districts have moved to year-round schooling. He also recognizes a year-round calendar poses a particular challenge to his tourist-heavy coastal district.

Students and teachers often work summer jobs. Cutting summer break short in the Georgetown area, even by a few weeks, might leave businesses in the hospitality and tourism industries scrambling for workers during the busy vacation season.

Price doesn’t have a solution for that but said he and others in the district are looking at year-round calendars with a start date closer to the traditional one or with shorter breaks.

Still, the dilemma highlights how a year-round calendar can present its own set of obstacles.

Districts considering schedule changes need to give their communities plenty of notice. Georgetown first began discussing the idea in January and initially proposed switching this school year. Price said parents liked the idea of the schedule, but they didn’t like moving so soon. Some already had vacation plans they would have to cancel or change. The opposition pushed officials to adjust their potential timeline to 2023.

Planning for child care presents another hurdle. Graves, in her research on calendar types and effects, found parents often react negatively to the calendar. She suspects that stems from how year-round schooling impacts child care options. During long summers in traditional calendars, a network of child care options exists already. During week- or two-week-long breaks in the fall or spring, those same child care options may not be around.

Jeffcoat, the Aiken administrator, said they have already planned how they will address that. Their after-school provider Quest Zone will operate during the breaks to give families of elementary students a child care option. Other districts are considering partnerships with Boys & Girls Clubs, churches and other community organizations.

But these plans highlight how complicated changing the calendar can be and how much districts need to think ahead when moving to year-round schooling.

Cautious optimism

Glenn, Greenwood’s superintendent, doesn’t want to oversell what the district has experienced.
But he and other administrators say the results seem promising. They know other districts are watching Greenwood as a bellwether. Glenn talked about the experience at a conference with other educators this year and found himself swarmed by superintendents and school board members after his presentation. They all wanted to know more.

Greenwood’s main goal was academics, and it’s seeing improvements. How much of that is due to the calendar or due to other interventions it’s implementing, like smaller class sizes, can be hard to determine. But the numbers are going in the right direction, Glenn said.

Rhett Copeland (left) and Robert Nickles (right) laugh together between exercises on their first day of teacher orientation in Greenwood on July 11, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff. By Henry Taylor htaylor@postandcourier.com

Administrators are also happy with the participation rates during remediation. From surveys, they know they have widespread community support, too.

Greenwood plans its calendars three years at a time. This fall, it will be setting the schedule through 2026. Glenn said his recommendation will be to stick with year-round.

At that point, the district will have marked five years on a modified schedule. By then, the district should have a clearer picture of whether the calendar is making a difference, Glenn said.
Some effects will take time to see, positive or negative.

“You can’t turn it on a dime, this thing’s a big airship,” Glenn said.

Year-round schooling may not end up being the solution. If not, he said, administrators will go back to the drawing board and explore other options.

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