Patti Bacchus: We need to talk about year-round schooling

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      Now that kids are back from spring break, how about we talk about year-round schooling?

      The two-week spring break started primarily as a way to save money, but there appear to be some solid educational arguments for moving to a “balanced calendar” as an alternative to that long, glorious, 10-week summer-break tradition and a September-to-June school year.

      With a balanced calendar, the school year has the same number of days and hours but it’s more evenly spaced out, with a shorter summer break of a month or six weeks, and regular breaks through the school year.

      The school calendar as we know it never really made sense. If it was an agrarian thing, as I’ve heard some claim, it would make more sense to have breaks in the spring for planting and in the fall for harvesting. It seems more likely the 10-month school year is a result of urban influences from the 1800s, when cities got hot in the summer and the well-to-do folks fled the sweltering urban heat for country climes, preferably near lakes or oceans with cooling breezes.

      Schools got hot and uncomfortable too, and some of the medical thinking at the time was that overuse of the brain could lead to harm and students needed a mental rest or risk damaging their brains (although that thinking could be coming back in style with increasing rates of anxiety in children and youth).

      Summer learning loss can exacerbate existing inequality

      I’ve never seen any compelling research that supports the traditional school calendar, but I’ve seen evidence the long break results in a summer learning loss that can put kids behind, particularly kids who don’t have educated adults available to spend time with them engaged in enriching, interesting activities, or travel, or to send them to camp.

      Language learners—those learning English or taking second-language immersion programs—can fall behind as well over the long summer break.

      Teachers will tell you that the first month—or more—of the school year can be spent reviewing and catching up. Parents of kids with special needs who struggle with change know the added stress that comes from transitioning onto and off of long breakS. Settling in takes time.

      That all means that kids who are already struggling with some sort of a disadvantage are disproportionately negatively affected by long summer breaks, widening what’s referred to in education speak as the achievement gap.

      Is there a better way?

      I’m writing this column from France, where kids go to school until the second week of July and return at the beginning of September, then take a two-week “autumn holiday” during the last week of October and first week of November, followed by two weeks at Christmas, and another two-week “winter holiday” in late February, followed by a two-week “spring holiday” in April. It sounds like a nice rhythm if you don’t have to worry about childcare or if you get as much vacation time as many French people do. 

      Some believe a “balanced” calendar is a better and healthier approach, and a handful of schools in B.C. are already doing it: Langley’s Douglas Park Community School, Richmond’s Garden City Elementary School and Spul'u'kwuks Elementary School, New Westminster’s Power Alternate Secondary School, and Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows’ Kanaka Creek Elementary School.

      There are a few variations—three months on, one month off, or a six-week summer with three three-week breaks scheduled through the school year, for example.

      Proponents say balanced calendars not only decrease summer learning loss and benefit English-language learners, they also seem to improve overall student and teacher wellness, which has been demonstrated by lower absenteeism rates in schools on balanced calendars. In colder climates, there can be heating-cost savings by closing more winter days as well, and for those with the means to do so, a chance to travel in the off season at lower rates.

      When my kids were in school, we generally loved the first six or so weeks of summer break, but by mid-August the kids seemed bored and I was ready to start packing lunches and send them back to school.

      Opponents of balanced calendars argue that without air conditioning, schools will be uncomfortably hot in the summer, creating poor working and learning conditions. Others argue that they cherish the tradition of long, lazy summers off and the chance to enjoy warm, drier weather. Some like the long breaks so they can visit relatives who live far away, while others say they don’t know what they’d do with their kids if they were off for weeks in bad winter weather.

      In high school, long summer breaks allow kids to get summer jobs, work experience, and save money for postsecondary costs. Teachers can use summer breaks to take courses, travel, and spend time with their own kids. Those who want extra income can often get jobs teaching summer-school programs. Students who have slipped behind in school can take summer-school remedial courses to catch up, which could be trickier if schools were on a more balanced calendar. High-school sports leagues follow the traditional school calendar, and a high-school with a balanced calendar would be out of sync with others.

      If it’s good for kids, why don’t we do more of it?

      Former Vancouver School Board (VSB) superintendent Steve Cardwell was interested in shifting one or more schools to a balanced calendar due to research that showed it could improve outcomes for students, vulnerable students in particular. He raised the issue when I chaired the VSB and we talked about how it could work without creating a big upheaval for families and staff.

      As the board chair in a big district with a whole lot of challenges, taking on something like this felt like a daunting process and I was warned by a former Richmond superintendent, Bruce Beairsto, that changing to a balanced calendar could become as divisive among communities as closing schools. We had some parents who were interested but no overwhelming demand, and we faced multiple logistical hurdles, including collective-agreement language that would have to be modified or renegotiated, figuring out how it would work for employees on call, which school (or schools) would be selected, and a lack of air conditioning in schools.

      Given the other pressing challenges we faced under the B.C. Liberal government, major calendar changes got pushed to the back burner in Vancouver.

      Growing enrollment in summer school is optional year-round schooling

      More than 15,000 students and hundreds of teachers a year already choose year-round schooling in Vancouver, through the VSB’s popular summer-school programs that run from early June until around the second week of August. It’s not just the old remedial classes either. Course offerings include elementary day-camp-style programs along with “preview” classes that give kids a head start on their regular school-year courses. For summer-school teachers, the extra income can help with high housing costs, and everyone somehow manages to endure the lack of air conditioning in most schools.

      If we’re prioritizing students and their opportunities to succeed first, especially for those who have some preexisting disadvantage, then we should be taking another look at exploring a year-round school as a choice option in larger districts like Vancouver—and in smaller ones if there is enough community support.

      We agreed at the VSB several years ago that if a school community came forward with support for the shift, we’d try to do it, but we never got to that stage. I regret that we didn’t try harder to see if this could work.

      If students come first, we need to consider balanced calendars

      A good approach would be to offer a balanced calendar at a new school and make it clear before it opened so families could decide whether or not to enroll and potential staff members could decide if they wanted to apply to work there. Ideally, it would be offered in conjunction with affordable childcare programs during all the breaks. Another option would be to offer it to a high school that’s close to another one, where there’s enough space in each for students to be able to choose between the two.

      It was something that we thought about for the new school downtown that was named Crosstown by the appointed trustee but, regrettably, with all the senior staff and board changes, it never came to pass. It’s harder to change something once it’s in place, but with a few more new schools on the drawing board, it’s an opportunity to give it a try. Imagine making a major change because it improves student learning instead of just trying to cut costs.

      Now that’s an idea whose time has come.


      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.