ALISON STEWART: When Bryan and Laura cooper moved to Charleston from Beckley, West Virginia two years ago with their young sons, they were apprehensive about the local school in their new neighborhood. It was on a year-round calendar, where kids start school just after July 4th.
LAURA COOPER: It sounded to me like the kids were in school constantly, you know, with maybe just three-day weekends here and there.
RYAN COOPER: I wanted to stay away from a school district that involved year-round.
ALISON STEWART: Why did you want to stay away?
BRYAN COOPER: I thought the kids wouldn’t like it. I thought that, you know, me thinking back as a child, I thought, “Man, I woulda hated to be in school all year round.” I woulda missed summer, hanging out with my friends, doing those activities.
ALISON STEWART: But once the Coopers – who both work full-time – learned more about the calendar at Piedmont Elementary School, they quickly became converts.
Here’s how the schedule works: instead of one extended summer break, the same 180 days of school are divided into 9 week quarters, which are then followed by three week breaks in fall, winter, and spring. There’s also about a month off for summer.
It’s sometimes called a modified or balanced calendar. And here at piedmont elementary school in Charleston, West Virginia, year-round schooling has been the norm for almost 20 years.
LAURA COOPER: Once we got a sense of what the schedule actually is we just thought, “Man, that’s great.” We can go on vacation in September instead of in the middle of summer.
BRYAN COOPER: They never get that feeling of, “Oh, I’m so sick of being at school,” because they get so many breaks that they’re always refreshed and ready to go back to school. So that was the wakeup call to me. To see how different they felt about it.
BETH STURGILL: Hi… have a good day.
ALISON STEWART: Principal Beth Sturgill is a big believer.
She says in addition to preventing student and teacher burnout, less time is needed for re-teaching at the beginning of the year. And for Piedmont, which is a diverse inner-city school with a high poverty rate, having shorter breaks throughout the year can provide more stability for at-risk students.
BETH STURGILL: There’s lots of families that sometimes we have concerns about and we like to check in with and make sure everything’s going well. And just to have that consistent flow without having that long, summer break helps them.
ALISON STEWART: Practically, the calendar also gives the school flexibility to make up snow days during spring break before annual standardized testing, instead of waiting until the end of the year.
KIM LANDERS: I need everybody facing me and listening.
ALISON STEWART: But the biggest benefit to running on a year-round schedule according to Principal Sturgill and other educators we spoke to is the possibility of adding more time in school by bringing kids back during the first week of each three week break.
It’s called intersession.
ALISON STEWART: What is intersession? What’s its purpose?
BETH STURGILL: So it’s a variety of– review and re-teach for those kids that need it. A little, extra boost and it’s also some enrichment activities just to give them some fun things to do.
ALISON STEWART: The extra week is optional – and paid for at Piedmont using federal money known as Title I funds, which are designated for schools with high populations of low-income students.
The Coopers’s kids, seven-year-old Zene and nine-year-old Tayan have always attended the “intersessions,” which are also weeks that their parents don’t have to worry about childcare.
BRYAN COOPER: Finding childcare for them for a whole summer is a lot different than finding childcare for them three weeks at a time throughout the year.
LAURA COOPER: It makes for an– a very expensive summer to have three entire months straight where you’re paying for childcare.
ALISON STEWART: Despite the benefits of the year-round calendar that parents and teachers cite, it’s not clear that it has helped Piedmont’s academic performance. In 2013, only 38.1% of children scored at or above mastery on reading. And only 38.9% scored at or above mastery at math, below the levels from a decade ago when the state first started using this standard to evaluate students.
HARRIS COOPER: What the research suggests about the actual positive effect is that if it’s positive, it’s not great overall.
ALISON STEWART: Harris Cooper is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. While research has documented how long summers can cause students to lose, on average, one month of instruction, he says shifting around the calendar to be year-round is not a definitive way to increase student performance.
But where it has shown an impact he says is with lower-income students. And he also suggests that it could help children with learning disabilities, and those for whom English is a second language.
But Cooper cautions even programs like intersessions that can add extra days to the school year are not necessarily going to boost achievement.
HARRIS COOPER: We shouldn’t ever lose sight of the fact that (SLAP) time in school is a black box. Working with the school calendar can– influence– a child’s learning. But what’s most important is how you fill the time that they’re in school.
ALISON STEWART: People are stuck on test scores.
BETH STURGILL: Oh, they are. Yes. They are.
ALISON STEWART: Until a balanced calendar can say, look, we make test scores better, you’re gonna have some resistance. What do you think?
BETH STURGILL: I think that’s a legitimate comment. But can we say the traditional calendar makes test scores better? I don’t know. I don’t know that that’s the case either. So I think you need the look at the whole child and the impact that year-round education can have on the whole child, and not just does it make your test scores higher.
ALISON STEWART: In West Virginia there is only one other school using a year-round calendar, Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School, across town from Piedmont. There, administrators are experimenting with two week intersessions and making the extra time mandatory.
And around the state, year-round schools have recently become a topic of discussion. This fall a new law went into effect that mandated 180 days of school, but granted local school districts more flexibility about how to set the calendar…
So that if a district wanted to adopt year round schooling it could. But not one did.
CHRISTINE CAMPBELL: I think people are really saying out loud, “Show me how this is gonna help my school system and the students in our school system.
ALISON STEWART: Christine Campbell is the President of the American Federation of Teachers for West Virginia, a teachers union. And she’s not sold on the idea.
In addition to the new state law granting school districts more options on the calendar, she says schools in West Virginia are in the midst of other major reforms: implementing common core, new statewide testing, and a new teacher evaluation system.
CHRISTINE CAMPBELL: I think people are overwhelmed with all the other changes that they’re just not ready to take on that that much change or one more thing until they– we wrap our arms around all the other things that are happening in the state and the education system.
ALISON STEWART: While Campbell acknowledges that districts should have the flexibility to try a year-round calendar if they want, she says there are logistical complications such as lack of air conditioning in many schools and scheduling issues for older students.
CHRISTINE CAMPBELL: Sports is a huge thing when you talk about a balanced calendar because if you have one county that is, you know, in the system, they all play each other in their sporting events. So what does that look like when you go from this county to play this county and their calendar is completely different?
ALISON STEWART: So for people–
CHRISTINE CAMPBELL: The–
ALISON STEWART: –who say, “Sports will adjust,” you have to think about it bigger than just– it’s not just sports. It’s the social aspect–
CHRISTINE CAMPBELL: –I mean, that’s part of–
ALISON STEWART: –and the importance of–
CHRISTINE CAMPBELL: –a child’s development is being involved in those things. And it’s a big part of our culture. Let’s– let’s (LAUGH) be realistic here.
ALISON STEWART: She is also concerned year-round school would mean service personnel and teachers would be unable to keep second jobs, a necessity for many in West Virginia, which ranks 47th in the country in teacher pay. But one of the biggest issues is that providing programs like intersession costs money, and despite federal funding for some lower income schools, it’s not always clear who would have to foot the bill.
CHRISTINE CAMPBELL: Does the community have to provide those services? Is the state department going to provide services for the intercessions? If we’re gonna talk to– talk about how to bridge that gap in student achievement, what does that look like?
ALISON STEWART: For the Coopers, the lack of year-round options for older kids is a big concern – in Charleston there’s not a single middle or high school on a balanced calendar.
Is there going to be a period for you guys when one of your kids is in a traditional school and one is on this “balanced calendar”?
BRYAN COOPER: Yeah. I dread it. And I’m very curious to see how that’s gonna work out.
ALISON STEWART: What are you concerned about?
BRYAN COOPER: I d– I just– Tayan will have days that he has to school that Zene doesn’t. Zene’ll have days off that Tayan has to go to school (SIC). So I– I’m sure there’ll be, you know, animosity both ways (LAUGHTER) of who gets to do what.
ALISON STEWART: One of the concerns we heard from parents was that there’s no middle school to go to–
BETH STURGILL: Yes. Correct.
ALISON STEWART: –on this calendar. There’s no high school to go to–
BETH STURGILL: Right.
ALISON STEWART: –on this calendar. What do you think about that?
BETH STURGILL: Well, I would love to see– my personal opinion is I would love to see all of Kanawha County schools go to the year-round calendar.
ALISON STEWART: All of ’em?
BETH STURGILL: Yes, I think it would be very beneficial for students.
ALISON STEWART: For Piedmont students Tayan and Zene Cooper, their first break will be next week.
ZENE COOPER: …one thing of this year’s intercession…
ALISON STEWART: And while many schools are just getting underway; they’ve already got nine weeks of learning under their belts.