Districts Weigh Pros and Cons of Year-Round Schools

waitingforbus2As educators begin a new school year, they usually have the time to attend staff meetings, tidy up their classrooms, and to prepare for incoming students. Those who teach at multi-track year-round schools, where the school year begins a week after the previous year ended, probably find themselves in a different situation.

Finalizing grades and report cards may take place while school is still in session, leaving teachers with a little over a day to prepare for the upcoming school year, only a week away. At least, that is what it’s like for Marcella Cox and others, depending on which track they are on, who teach in the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) in North Carolina.

Several elementary and middle schools in WCPSS offer multi-track schooling. Those schools usually have a 45-15 schedule, where students and teachers are in school for 45 days, followed by a 15-day vacation, or “track out.” Instead of spending more money to build additional schools, WCPSS had 22 of its elementary and middle schools convert to year-round schedules beginning at the start of the 2007-08 school year.

“I don’t believe it’s more challenging, just different,” said Cox, a sixth grade language arts teacher at West Lake Middle School in Apex, which operates on a multi-track schedule. “There are some changes that we have to get used to when making the switch.”

Year-round schools are on the rise. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, the number of year-round schools has increased by 764 – about 26 percent – since 2007.

Most of these schools typically operate on a multi-track or a single-track schedule. To mitigate overcrowding, multi-track schools split students and teachers into three or four groups. So while some students and teachers are in school, others are on vacation. Single-track schedules, on the other hand, include shorter summers and extra vacation days during the school year. Additionally, everyone is in school at the same time.

This year, multiple schools adopted year-round schedules to hopefully help them improve academically. For instance, four schools in Charlotte, now have year-round schedules, and an elementary school in Portland, Oregon, switched as well. Some schools are even receiving extra funding if they implement year-round calendars. A few schools and school districts in Michigan have recently received funds to change calendars and more are expected to do the same.

Many schools convert to year-round schools to decrease student and teacher burnout and to make full use of the school and its facilities.  Some critics, however, note that extracurricular activities, like sports and band, may be more difficult under the year-round schedule. Unless the entire district converts to the same calendar, parents with kids in different grade levels can find it troublesome to plan vacations. And although one of the main reasons for switching to year-round schools is to improve retention rates, there is no concrete proof that students improve academically.

Yet Cox and Tia McQueen, a fourth grade teacher at the multi-track Salem Elementary School, both prefer the year-round schedule. Why? Teachers and students at year-round schools experience less burnout and they spend less time reviewing material since students don’t encounter the “summer slide,” or a loss of learning. What’s more, parents and teachers are able to form long-lasting bonds from multi-track schedules. Parents usually try to put all their kids on the same track, allowing McQueen to teach multiple kids from the same family.

“Parents like it a lot,” said McQueen, who’s been teaching for nine years. “There’s a really good bond with families on your track.”

Still, there are flaws with the multi-track year-round schedule. Placing teachers into different groups makes collaboration more difficult; at least one track is out while the other tracks remain in the school. While districts save money from maximizing capacity with year-round schools, operational costs can be more expensive than at traditional schools.

Teachers often share rooms at multi-track schools. They have to take their supplies – rolling carts, file cabinets, podiums, etc. – with them when leaving on their 15-day vacation. Students have early release days when the “track outs” occur – an attempt by WCPS to give teachers days to be used for staff development. But Cox said that it hasn’t been effective.

“There is so much pressure on setting up the classroom and getting ready for the kids to return,” Cox said.  “So often, staff development is not fully utilized by all teachers or is not the best it could be since the teachers feel such pressure to get into their classrooms.”

Some students enroll at different times as well. Cox, who’s been teaching for 22 years, said she is on track three, in which many students enter during the middle of August. The school year starts in early July, resulting in potential challenges for educators on her track.

Moreover, Cox said some schools in WCPS have not, in the past, filled their tracks. Last year, her team, composed of four teachers, expected to have 113 students, but only had 92. A similar team experienced the same issue and two teachers lost their jobs, she said.

“So we wonder why the multi-track year round is needed if we cannot completely fill all four tracks,” she said, noting that some elementary schools in WCPS recently eliminated three tracks and put all their students on track four only. “This would mean that they are not benefitting from the year round schedule’s ability to house more students.”

But for Cox and McQueen, the pros still seem to outweigh the cons.

“Most people are very hesitant to year-round schools,” McQueen said. “People just need to keep an open mind about the whole thing.”