Back-to-school season comes sooner at year-round schools

DANVILLE – Seven-year-old Kendall Campbell of Danville has mixed feelings about returning to school this week.

On one hand, the Northeast Elementary Magnet School second-grader will miss swimming in her baby-sitter's pool and staying up late. Yet, she's also eager to check out books from the school library, do art projects and interact with classmates whom she hasn't seen for six weeks.

"She enjoyed the break, but she's ready to go back," said her mother, Lisa. "She misses her friends. The week after school was out ... she was just kind of lost without them."

Students at Thomasboro Elementary School and Kenwood and Barkstall elementaries in Champaign also will return this week – a month before most other schools begin. Students at Holy Family, a Catholic school in Danville, started Thursday.

These five schools in Vermilion and Champaign counties follow a balanced calendar, which means classes are in session year-round. Though the school days total about 180, the same as the traditional calendar, the sessions are spread out over more of the year's 12 months to provide continuous learning.

"I've been a proponent since the beginning," said Holy Family School Principal Peggy Croy, whose preschool through eighth-grade programs have been year-round since 1998. Administrators, teachers and parents studied the idea for three or four years before switching from the traditional calendar. "That calendar is based on the agrarian society ... and the basis is obsolete."

"We like the balanced-calendar so much ... that we would love to see a sixth, seventh and eighth grade," said Sue Shannon, a Northeast parent. The K-5 school with its 350 students has been year-round since 1997.

"Truthfully, my son would rather be playing ball than going back to the classroom," she said of 10-year-old Max, a fifth-grader. "But this gives him a structured environment with enough down time in between. I think if more parents did it, they'd realize what an advantage it is for their kids."

Despite rave reviews by those at existing balanced-calendar schools, there are no plans to expand the concept in Danville or Champaign or to introduce the calendar in other districts, including Urbana.

That's because making the conversion is not logistically or financially feasible in some cases, school officials said. And many parents and teachers simply prefer the traditional calendar.

Balanced benefits

Year-round students attend school for nine weeks at a time with breaks between quarters instead of going nine months with a three-month summer break. Typically, though not at every school, students have three weeks off after the first and third quarter, two weeks off around Christmas – the same as the traditional calendar – and six or eight weeks off in the summer.

This schedule, school officials said, allows students to retain more information over the breaks. It reduces necessary reviewing time at the beginning of the year.

"Two and a half to three months is a long time," said Murial D. Bondurant, who started as Kenwood's principal this year. The K-5 school has been year-round since 1995. "They found that after the break, our children were spending so much time reviewing."

Said Croy: "We felt we were losing ground with motivation."

Administrators, teachers and parents turned to the balanced calendar to bridge that summer vacation gap. School officials said research indicates students retain more information over shorter increments of time.

"They can come back and pick right up much easier," said Cyndi Parsons, who taught art at Northeast for eight years.

"That's especially important for students at risk," said Bondurant, who taught special education and learning disabled students for years. "Classroom time is spent more productively. We have to get a certain amount of work accomplished each session, and this allows us to do that."

During the first and third breaks, most schools offer an intersession program, providing extra academic help to students in need.

"It was a way of scaffolding them so that they don't fall as far behind," said Trudy Walters, principal of Barkstall, a K-5 school with 440 students.

Unfortunately, she said, Barkstall's program fell victim to budget cuts two years ago.

"It's more proactive than summer schools because you supported the students before they could really get behind," Walters said.

Another plus, officials noted, is students and teachers seem to suffer less burnout.

"At any point in time, you only have nine weeks to go," Croy said. "After a break, everybody's glad to come back and ready to learn."

Walters said students and teachers begin the second, third and fourth quarters "as energized as they were in the first quarter. ... We really don't have to reacclimate to school. We can get on task and get going."

Officials said they always meet curriculum guidelines and other district goals as well as do special programs.

Thomasboro, a K-8 school with 190 students, has rewards programs including the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support programs to help students learn about the expectations in various school settings.

"We do things like take them to lunch and bring in (University of Illinois) basketball players," Principal Michelle Ramage said. "I don't know if we could do that with a traditional calendar. It takes some time and energy to be planned."

Officials are pleased with test scores and are seeing improved grade-point averages, though there's not yet enough data to determine if the year-round calendar gives students an academic edge. Nationwide data offers mixed reviews.

Obstacles to expansion

The balanced schedule does not work at every school. Besides logistical problems, such as lack of air-conditioning and transportation, sometimes teachers and parents are resistant.

"Educationally, this is a wonderful thing for kids," said Kathy Wallig, spokeswoman for Urbana schools. But "many teachers work over that three-month break, and they would lose a portion of their income. And a lot of teachers are in school or they have their families" on a traditional calendar.

Wallig said many parents' schedules are better served by a traditional calendar because they teach or go to school at the UI.

"When it comes to blending the year-round calendar to families who have older children, or parents on a traditional calendar, it can be a nightmare," she said.

Urbana officials will continue to revisit the idea periodically.

Danville's Meade Park School, which adopted a balanced calendar in 1997, reverted in 2005 as part of a redistricting plan aimed at balancing K-8 enrollment districtwide. Superintendent Nanette Mellen said Meade Park has a high mobility rate. About 10 percent of students, who were at traditional-calendar schools, enrolled late and then struggled to catch up.

"The gap educationally was huge," Mellen said, adding students had a hard time meeting education goals. "The sessions during breaks helped some, but they were so far behind. And attendance was atrocious."

Also, Mellen said, parents who originally rallied for the balanced calendar no longer have children at Meade Park. They've been replaced with parents and children who are used to the traditional calendar.

"The schedule was just too difficult for them to manage," Mellen said, and some parents raised concerns about finding child care during the longer fall and spring breaks.

Mellen said parents' support of the calendar is key. That's usually what you'll find at schools of choice – which draw students from the entire district – where most of the balanced calendars are.

Though they chose the schools because of the structured, continuous learning environment, parents said they've found other benefits. Shannon as well as Mike and Jamee Potts – whose 8-year-old daughter, Allison, is a Kenwood third-grader – enjoy family vacations in the fall break in late September and early October.

"We're planning a vacation to Disneyworld," Mike Potts said. "I hear the weather is perfect, the rates are lower and the lines are smaller. We're taking advantage of that."

Shannon said her son sometimes is envious of his friends at traditional-calendar schools who can play and stay up later while he's back in school.

"He just reminds them of the three-week break (in the fall)," his mother said with a laugh. "When they're in school, he's on vacation."

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