All-year schooling fading out; Some Texas districts don’t see benefits

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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A decade ago, it was the wave of the future. Now, the year-round calendar is becoming a thing of the past, at least in Texas.

The idea was simple: Sharply cut back on the traditional summer break, and students will forget less and learn more. For a time in the 1990s, it was hard to find a large school district that wasn’t at least considering a move to year-round schooling.

But in the last four years, more than two-thirds of the Texas schools that had adopted year-round calendars switched back. Nearly every major school district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area has joined in the retreat, and many educators aren’t sad to see the year-round calendar go.

“I’m happy about it,” said Lucy Davila-Hakemack, principal at Reagan Elementary in Oak Cliff, one of six DISD schools switching back to the traditional calendar this fall. One charter school, Allen Elementary in West Dallas, will remain on the schedule. “There was no proof it helped with test scores, or attendance, or anything.”

The number of year-round schools in Texas peaked at 359 in 1996-97. By last fall, there were 126.

It appears the number will be lower when the new school year begins. In addition to the Dallas schools changing back, a move approved by the school board in March, Denton ISD eliminated its only year-round program last fall. Last month, Austin ISD decided its eight year-round schools would revert next year.

Year-round schedules have remained somewhat popular with schools targeting specialized populations, such as charter schools or campuses that serve the severely disabled. But it appears that by fall, there will be only a handful of mainstream campuses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on a year-round schedule.

In some ways, to even call the remaining campuses “year-round” is a bit of a misnomer. In Texas, schools that have a calendar only slightly longer than the traditional one – say, one that starts school a couple of weeks earlier and ends it a couple of weeks later – are considered “year-round,” even if it still has a summer break of two months or more. Dallas’ remaining year-round campuses finished school Thursday.

For those who promote year-round education, the gains it promises are substantial: better student performance, higher morale for teachers and fewer weeks spent re-teaching material learned the year before.

Year-round schedules generally feature multiweek breaks, usually in November and March. During those breaks, students having academic difficulties can be kept in class for an extra week or two of tutoring and instruction.

“The improvements seen have been substantial,” said Marilyn Stenvall, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education.

While the numbers have tailed off in Texas, year-round education continues to grow in popularity nationwide, she said, with more than 3,000 schools on the new calendar. Ms. Stenvall said she didn’t know why Texas, which had been on the vanguard of the trend, was pulling back.

Some Texas schools have found success with the longer schedules. Socorro ISD in El Paso has all its schools on a year-round calendar and has been named a “Recognized” district by the Texas Education Agency, despite a largely disadvantaged student population.

Socorro went year-round in 1991, in part to use buildings more efficiently by rotating students in and out on staggered schedules. But the academic benefits became clear within a few years, officials say.

“We were not considered a strong academic school district in the early 1990s,” said Sue Shook, the district’s associate superintendent for instructional services. “Today, the TAAS scores are high, more kids are going to university, and we’re considered the premier district in the county.”

The success has helped the district pass a bond issue to build schools, making the old rotating year-round calendar unnecessary. The district has no plans to move away from the longer schedule.

“It’s done a great deal for our community,” Dr. Shook said. “We’re in an area with a lot of poverty, and there aren’t a lot of activities available for children outside of school. Parents like knowing the school is providing quality activities for a longer portion of the year.”

But most districts have come to see year-round calendars as more trouble than they are worth. Ms. Davila-Hakemack, the Reagan principal, said there was never evidence that the schedule helped students learn more.

The longer schedule was more expensive than the traditional one, she said, in part because the school had to be air-conditioned for longer in the hotter months.

If the longer calendar had meant students were being taught on more days, it might have done some good, she said. But Dallas’ year-round calendar doesn’t include more instructional days – the days are just more spread out.

Another problem: Because the two school calendars in DISD ended at different times, students in year-round schools could not attend summer school.

“I begged and pleaded to try to get a summer-school session for some of our students, but we couldn’t,” Ms. Davila-Hakemack said.

That lack of coordination with traditional schools is one of the reasons Fort Worth schools switched back most year-round schools a year ago.

“Quite frankly, year-round education is a good concept, but regrettably, it never caught on to the extent that nearly all schools could do it,” said Superintendent Tom Tocco. “I think it’s very important to have virtually all of your schools on the same calendar.

“We almost had to have two different staff development schedules, for example. And because they were the smaller group, the year-round schools always felt they were receiving second-rate professional services from the district.”

In Austin, officials on each of the district’s eight year-round campuses made the decision to switch calendars this spring. One of the biggest reasons, officials said, was that the Texas Education Agency plans to change the time of year students on year-round campuses take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS).

This spring, as in previous years, students on year-round campuses could take the TAAS several weeks later than those on traditional campuses. But starting in 2002, the special year-round date will be eliminated as part of the move to the next generation of TAAS testing. That would have left fewer days of test preparation for students in Austin’s year-round schools.

But those drawbacks aren’t nearly enough to overcome the worth of a longer calendar, according to the principal of one of North Texas’ few remaining year-round schools.

“The extra time for learning reinforcement can have a big effect,” said Alice Clark, principal of Motley Elementary in Mesquite. Motley has been repeatedly rated exemplary by the TEA, despite a student population that is 54 percent economically disadvantaged.

Ms. Clark said that teachers like the midsemester breaks the longer schedule allows. Tutoring during those breaks allows weaker students to succeed, she said.

“Our parents like the year-round schedule,” she said.