Image: Students in Havre, Mont.
Nikki Carlson  /  AP file
Students leave buses at Lincoln-McKinley Primary School in Havre, Mont., where classes are held year-round.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 10/27/2010 6:13:04 AM ET 2010-10-27T10:13:04

Two days before Thanksgiving, the Indianapolis School Board will make a decision sure to heat up discussion around the turkey in just about every home with young children. That's when board members will vote on whether to adopt year-round classes.

If the board approves the measure, Indianapolis pupils would go to school in cycles of eight to 10 weeks, with three to five weeks off after each, throughout the year. That would put them among the growing number of children around the nation who are going to school on so-called balanced schedules.

Indianapolis Superintendent Eugene White said the schedule would add 20 class days every year, giving pupils more time to learn and shorter periods away from the classroom to forget what they've studied. For both teachers and students, the shorter but more frequent breaks will "give them some kind of relief and (allow them to) come back more invigorated," he said.

That's important in a district criticized for low standardized-test scores and high dropout rates, said board member Annie Roof, because "what we are doing isn't working."

10 percent by 2012?
If the board approves, Indianapolis will hop on a bandwagon that's quietly rolling across the education landscape.

Ten years ago, according to Education Department statistics, about 1.5 million public school children went to class on a "balanced schedule" — usually shorthanded as YRE, for "year-round education."

Six years ago, that number was up to 2 million. By 2008, nearly 2.5 million pupils were on a YRE plan.

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That's the last year for which official figures are available, but since then, some of the nation's biggest districts have adopted or expanded YRE in their facilities, notably the Chicago Public Schools, and others — including Houston and Indianapolis — could join them next year.

By  2012, education groups estimate, more than 5 million pupils — about 10 percent of all children enrolled in American public schools — could be going to school year-round.

In Chicago, the drive to adopt YRE was championed by Arne Duncan during his term as the school system's chief executive. Duncan is now President Barack Obama's education secretary, and his boss is behind the campaign for year-round learning.

"The idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense," Obama said in an interview last month on NBC's TODAY. "Students are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer."

The phenomenon is called "spring slide," a term coined by Doris R. Entwisle, Karl L. Alexander and Linda Steffel Olson of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who have tracked Baltimore schoolchildren since 1982 and have been publishing their findings since 1997.

Challenging some prevalent assumptions, they reported in 2007 that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds make just as much progress during the academic year as better-off children. On standardized reading comprehension tests, students improved by about 195 points regardless which socioeconomic background they come from, low, middle or high, the researchers found.

But in the summer months, kids in the top third economically kept gaining, picking up on average 46.6 points on the reading test. It was a dramatically different story for the less-privileged two-thirds: Kids the middle group gained about 4.5 points on average, while those in the bottom third lost 1.9 points. (Other research has shown similar, though less dramatic, trends in math and science.)

'We don't have them here enough'
Put another way, well-off children — those with access to tutoring and academic camps and travel — keep learning when school's out for the summer, while those without such advantages tread water or even sink.

"Society can't keep saying to schools 'have every kid perform better' when we don't have them here enough," said Charlie Kyte, president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. A few Minnesota districts have adopted balanced calendars, and many others are studying the idea.

In Indianapolis, the difference is clear in the small number of schools that are already year-round, said Margaret Silk, a fourth-grade teacher at one of them, Ernie Pyle Elementary School. There, 70 percent of students from low-income families pass their state assessment tests, higher than the Indiana average for all students and well above the average for lower-income students.

Silk said that under the traditional calendar, it took six weeks of reviewing the previous year's lessons just to get her students back up to speed.

"In this calendar, oh, my goodness, (it takes) maybe two weeks at most," she said.

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Natasha Flowers, an assistant education professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said the year-round classes make a significant difference to children who are at the most risk — those from families that "don't have resources to do lots of academic enriching during the summer."

That's especially important as the federal No Child Left Behind program requires kids to master more material by the time they graduate. Educators like Mike Ginalski, superintendent of schools in Corning, N.Y., say it's getting harder to "cram all of the curriculum in basically a nine- to 10-month period of time."

"There are children that can always benefit from more time and more support that they receive daily in school," Ginalski said.

So why isn't year-round education taking root even faster?

For one thing, it's not just pupils who don't like the idea of sitting in class all day in the middle of summer. Public opinion polling has consistently shown that a majority of American adults oppose mandatory summer classes, too.

The most recent poll, by Rasmussen Reports in July, found that adults opposed a year-round calendar by 63 percent to 31 percent — about the same ratio as other surveys taken in recent years. (The Rasmussen poll reported a margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points.)

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Specifically, 71 percent of adults — parents and non-parents alike — said in the most recent poll that children learn valuable life lessons during long summer breaks, by going to camp or by taking temporary jobs. And at public hearings recently in Indianapolis, some parents complained that summer classes would complicate their family vacation plans.

But the big objection boils down to this:

"Show me the money," Randy J. Greene, superintendent of schools in Paducah, Ky., said when the idea was raised there after Obama's comments last month.

Year-round buses and lunches and after-school tutoring programs cost more, Greene said, and parents are already unhappy about a 4 percent increase in property taxes to cover the $300,000 cut in state funding that hit the district this year.

The cost concern is playing out differently in Las Vegas, where the Clark County School Board — facing a $30 million shortfall in its budget thanks to reduced state funding and declining property tax revenue — voted in April to abandon a year-round calendar and return to the traditional three-month summer break. The new calendar was projected to save the district about $13.8 million.

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Marcie McDonald, principal of Squires Elementary School, said she understood that the board had to try to balance its smaller budget. But she said doing so would come at a real cost.

Ninety-two percent of McDonald's pupils are Latino, and for two-thirds of them, English is their second language.

"Our little ones are learning language," McDonald said. "They go home and listen to their primary language of their home for three months and come back. And having not used English for three months — that poses another concern or problem."

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Video: Obama: 'I think we should have longer school years'

  1. Transcript of: Obama: 'I think we should have longer school years'

    Cohen's sixth-grade class, Roll Hill School, Cincinnati: " President Obama , we understand there are discussions regarding the idea of attending school year-round. Do you think we should attend school year-round? If so, why?"

    Pres. OBAMA: I think we should have longer school years. We now have our kids go to school about a month less than most other advanced countries. And that month makes a difference. It means that kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer. It's especially severe for poorer kids who may not be -- have -- seeing as many books in their house during the summers, aren't getting supplemental educational activities. So the idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense. Now, that's going to cost some money. So here's an example of where you've got a good idea of reform -- make sure our kids are in school longer -- well, that means the school is open, it means you got to pay teachers, custodial staff, etc. But I think that's -- that would be money well spent.

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