Should summer vacation become obsolete? Some education leaders say it has big benefits. But what exactly does it mean – and how does it work for local families?
There seems to be one easy truth about year-round schools in Michigan. Parents and students who choose to attend them seem to love them.
Samantha Anker, now 13, entered Lake Orion's Carpenter Year-Round Elementary School as a kindergartener. Samantha was well aware of the difference between her own school's balanced calendar, with its six-week summer vacation, and other kids' schools that adhere to the traditional calendar that includes a 10-week-long summer. Her mother Mary Beth says Samantha couldn't wait to get to middle school and enjoy a nice long August like her friends had been enjoying.
"She was very anxious to finally have a long summer, when she was going into sixth grade and the traditional calendar in her middle school," Anker says of her daughter. "But then within 10 days she said, 'Oh my gosh! I want to go back to school!'"
Samantha's two younger siblings went off to school at Carpenter each August morning, that year. "I just sat there and watched TV. I was really bored," Samantha says. Since then Samantha has volunteered at Carpenter each August to avoid the end-of-summer doldrums.
But for those who have not bought into the year-round school model, change does not come easy.
In November 2010, Ann Arbor Public Schools announced in a district-wide newsletter that it was investigating a partnership with University of Michigan's School of Education to turn two underperforming public schools into lab schools. A key part of the plan was that the two buildings would become year-round schools. That year-round element generated so much concern among parents, the district conducted a parent survey soon after. Just a few weeks later, the district announced it would postpone the year-round concept for at least two years.
"The results of the survey were very clear," says Ann Arbor mom Ruth Kraut, who has a master's degree in curriculum development and two children in the schools. "People were very skeptical about the year-round piece. The district did the right thing by saying we're going to hold off on this."
So why is it that national, state and local leaders embrace year-round schools, but many parents remain skeptical? Experts say it's because year-round schools are not very common in Michigan and certainly not well understood.
What are year-round schools?
The very term "year-round school" (YRS) begs misinterpretation. The reality is more complicated, and much shorter, than it sounds.
The typical Michigan public school operates 180 days per school year, usually September through June, with a 10-week-long summer vacation. The Michigan Department of Education defines an YRS as having a summer break lasting no longer than six weeks.
Some schools accomplish this by adding more days to the school calendar, and stay open as many as 200 days a year. Other schools stick with the 180 days, but shorten the summer to six weeks and add weeklong breaks throughout the rest of the school year. The latter is also referred to as a "balanced calendar" YRS school.
The main goal of either type of YRS is to increase educational opportunities, either by adding instructional days or by minimizing the "summer slide" educational researchers believe occurs when children do not have sufficient educational opportunities over long summer breaks.
The National Summer Learning Association at Johns Hopkins University warns that all young people experience learning losses when they are not involved in educational opportunities over the summer and that most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in math and computational skills over the long summer months.
The 200-day calendar
The most dedicated YRSs in southeast Michigan are the 200-day per year schools. They go well beyond the simple concept of shortening the summer break, by adding an extra month to the school year and, often, a more rigorous academic program. Two area charter schools do just that.
The Cornerstone School in Detroit serves about 500 students in preschool through eighth grade who attend school from late August through early July. Cornerstone CEO and president Ernestine Sanders believes the long school year helps her students succeed.
"We find that the extended school year allows us to do some of the things you wouldn't normally have an opportunity to do," she says. "You can increase your time on task, but you can also truly develop a culture of learning. It's not all about the reading and the writing and the math, but it's also about how you think about things, so that you can help youngsters to be really strategic about learning," Sanders says.
Linda Phillips is the individual learning coordinator who runs the computer lab at Cornerstone. Before she joined the school seven years ago, Phillips taught math in public schools for 20 years. She is impressed with the 11-month calendar.
"They do more things in a day here than I've ever seen a school do before and the calendar helps allow for that," Phillips says. "If you only had nine months, they wouldn't be able to do all this."
Both preschool and kindergarten are full day at Cornerstone. And in addition to the usual subjects, students take mandatory Mandarin and Spanish from kindergarten on and play violin from third grade.
Ayana Thomas chose Cornerstone for her oldest daughter eight years ago, not for its 200-day calendar, but for its academic standards. "At the time year-round schools were foreign to me. Now I think it's beneficial, though the 11 months can be a little draining," she says.
Fifth grader Binta Wilson says she likes going to Cornerstone, but she admits a longer summer would be nice. "Sometimes I see all my other friends getting out earlier and I wish I could too," she says.
Cornerstone School topped the Excellent Schools Detroit listing of the best elementary schools in the city in 2010 and 2011. And just this June, the Detroit News named Sanders one of its Michiganians of the Year for 2011 for her work, "changing the world, one student at a time."
Himawari Preschool and Hinoki International Elementary School of Livonia also adheres to a 200-day, year-round model. The school's year begins after Labor Day but continues through late July.
Michigan-native Ted Delphia, a certified teacher, and his wife Mitsuyo founded the school in 2004 to serve the large Japanese community living and working in the Detroit area. Although the majority of the schools' 59 students are Japanese, Delphia hopes that more American parents will see the value in providing their children with a bilingual education in the future.
"The Japanese kids help the American kids learn the language at their level. It's a very natural way for kids to learn," Delphia says.
Hinoki International School operates as a charter school through Livonia Public Schools and is open to students from other districts.
"I didn't send her to Himawari because of the 200 days. That was just a pleasant surprise," says Christine Lardner of her daughter Sheradyn. "I know she'll lose some Japanese over the summer, so I'm glad she has more time for natural language acquisition with her peers and a shorter vacation."
Delphia decided to use the YRS model to fight back against summer slide. He says not only do kids lose ground over the typically long summer, but that in his experience at Michigan schools, students don't do much, academically, after Memorial Day.
"A long summer is not the best thing for children. It just means that September is a rerun, so you're just trying to get them back up to where they were the previous May." He also believes a 200-day school calendar takes some pressure off the teachers.
"They know that if the kids don't get something today, they have another chance tomorrow. So it gives the teacher more space and more options on how to roll out that year's curriculum and content."
The 180-day balanced calendar
Carpenter Elementary just finished its 15th year as a balanced calendar school and Lake Orion Community Schools' only year-round facility. "We have the same number of days as the rest of the district, but instead of having a 10-week summer, we have a six-week summer and those other four weeks are spread out as breaks during the year," says Principal Kerri Anderson. Carpenter has such a good reputation that there is a waitlist for families trying to get in.
Anderson credits the balanced calendar with improving attendance. "Student and staff attendance is up because of the breaks. It seems like there is always a break around the corner, so we don't have a lot of staff or students who are missing school," Anderson says.
Former Carpenter student Samantha Anker agrees. "You never feel stressed out and there's always a break coming up and a day off once in a while. It's nice," she says.
Some parents appreciate the ability to take vacations throughout the year at off-peak times, when their kids are on the weeklong breaks. "Ultimately a vacation to Florida is what convinced me to have her go into Carpenter because I realized there's nobody in Florida at this time," says Carpenter mom Mary Beth Anker.
The school also offers intercessions, or themed camps, during the staggered weeks off, where kids can learn in a more relaxed way. "It costs $110 for the whole week," Anderson says. "We run the same school hours, the busses run the same and it's all around a theme. One year we did the Winter Olympics and the kids got to go skiing."
This year, Ann Blizzard has three children at Carpenter. She took her decision to try the school very seriously when her 6-year-old twins started kindergarten last year.
"Most parents are concerned about how they would handle their summers or what they would do if one child was in middle school on a traditional calendar and the other was in elementary, and I know people in that situation. But my concern was, 'Are they going to get enough playtime? Are they going to have fun?'
"Because when most people think 'year-round' they think academics," she says. "But they loved it, and I knew right away we made the right choice."
One thing the parents who support their children's YRSs had in common was that they all made the choice to send their children to these schools. But many parents are resistant to the concept or even completely opposed to it. One national group called Summer Matters advocates stopping the spread of YRS, while The National Association for Year-Round Education is focused on promoting school calendar reform throughout the country. Both sides say they have ample research to back up their claims either for or against YRSs.
Ann Arbor mom Ruth Kraut believes it comes down to parental choice. "For me personally, I would hate it," she says. "I think it's important to have extended downtime periods, and it's hard because it's hot in the summer and even though all the schools are air-conditioned they are not well air-conditioned."
But Kraut knows other parents who were looking forward to the possibility of having YRS in Ann Arbor. She believes the plans weren't widely supported because parents wanted to be sure they had the choice to opt in or opt out. "It's a very individual parent decision," she says.
Principal Bruce Bendure, Ph.D., ran the YRS program at Highland Elementary School in the Huron Valley district for almost 20 years. He says parental buy-in to the system is key to its implementation. "The districts have to go slow. It takes a couple years of planning and preparation before you can start something like that. It's just the nature of people. They want to know everything about it before they even think about it. You have to be very slow and methodical before you initiate something like this," he says.
Still, however schools approach implementing a YRS model, David Hornak, principal of Holt Horizon Elementary, the only YRS in Michigan's Ingham County, simply believes it's time to take a serious look at the successes his school and others are experiencing.
"In our current economic time, we need to call on the experts around us and call on our communities to help us educate our children in creative ways," Hornak says. "I challenge people to answer the question, 'why do we do school the way we do it?' I think the balanced calendar school is a viable model for all Michigan schools."