2018-02-21 / Featured / Front Page

For disadvantaged kids, is year-round school the answer?


School officials are proposing a pilot program to make Bellwood Elementary’s academic calendar year-round. 
JAMES HASKINS School officials are proposing a pilot program to make Bellwood Elementary’s academic calendar year-round. JAMES HASKINS In 1982, sociology professor Karl Alexander and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University recruited 800 children living in the city of Baltimore and began monitoring their academic progress from first grade into adulthood.

What they discovered, as Alexander would later describe it, was “a problem of monumental proportions.”

After administering standardized achievement tests to their study participants over many years, Alexander and his team found that by ninth grade, about two-thirds of the academic achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their middle-class peers resulted from cumulative “summer learning loss” in elementary school.

Based on test results, Alexander determined that economically disadvantaged students progressed academically at roughly the same rate as their middle-class peers during the school year. Over the summer, however, economically disadvantaged students consistently fell off the pace.

Proponents of year-round schools say eliminating the three-month summer layoff benefits economically disadvantaged students. 
JAMES HASKINS Proponents of year-round schools say eliminating the three-month summer layoff benefits economically disadvantaged students. JAMES HASKINS The researchers found that students from middle-class families were far more likely to benefit from a variety of summer enrichment opportunities, such as visiting libraries and museums, attending concerts, taking out-of-town vacations and being involved in organized sports. By the time those middle-class students entered ninth grade, they were 66 percent more likely to pursue a college preparatory academic path in high school.

“It makes all the sense in the world,” said John Bennett, an emeritus professor at the University of Connecticut who now lives in Midlothian.

In the early 1990s, Bennett led a team of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates who worked with children in inner-city Hartford, Connecticut, as part of a federally funded program designed to prepare low-income students to enter college and succeed academically.

“Many children in urban environments don’t get the same level of summer enrichment as suburban children and they start the next school year at a significantly lower point than they ended the prior school year. Each year, they fall further and further behind,” he added.

As part of an effort to close academic achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged, black and Hispanic students, the Chesterfield school system is planning to implement a year-round calendar at Bellwood Elementary as a pilot program for the 2018-19 school year.

Over the past two decades, multiple scholars have found that a year-round calendar reduced the impact of summer learning loss – often couched in colloquial terms such as “summer slide” or “brain drain” – on students in all three demographic subgroups.

If the proposal is approved by the School Board next month, Bellwood’s teachers and staff will return to work July 16 and classes will begin a week later.

“I think it’s going to be a very good thing,” said Bermuda District School Board member Carrie Coyner, whose district includes Bellwood.

The number of economically disadvantaged students in Chesterfield continues to climb annually. During the 2002-03 school years, 23.5 percent of the county’s elementary school students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches. By the 2016-17 school year, that number had increased to 37 percent.

Nearly 19,000 of the local school system’s 60,000 students now participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

Over the past 10 years, the number of Hispanic students in Chesterfield schools has more than doubled. More than 3,500 of the county’s public school students live in homes where English is not the dominant language.

School officials initially identified Bellwood as one of three potential participants in the year-round pilot program, but the principals at two other schools – Falling Creek Elementary and Falling Creek Middle – asked for a one-year delay to solicit feedback from the community.

All three schools have more than 70 percent of their students on free or reduced-price lunches, as well as large numbers of students in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program.

Bellwood’s principal, Jennifer Rudd, said both her staff and students’ families have been overwhelmingly supportive of the change to a year-round schedule – in which students attend school for nine weeks, then have the next three weeks off.

Rudd noted that she broached the idea with her staff first because “in order for this to work, everybody has to be behind it.”

Bellwood staffers were part of an 18-person delegation from Chesterfield County Public Schools that traveled to Wake County, North Carolina, last year and discussed the year-round calendar with school officials there. Wake County has had year-round schools for more than 20 years.

The school system also sent a team to meet with officials in Alexandria, which currently has one year-round school and the remainder of its schools on a traditional schedule.

They learned the year-round schedule typically results in less burnout for teachers and students because they get four three-week breaks instead of one long summer vacation. There also are fewer grade retentions because of more frequent opportunities for academic remediation.

“We already remediate students, but we think it would be a benefit to work with them right after the nine weeks is over instead of waiting until summer school to address weaknesses,” Rudd said.

Under the proposed schedule, students at Bellwood will still attend school for at least the 180 days mandated by the state. But during the three-week quarterly breaks, the school also will offer optional intersession programming with additional opportunities for academic remediation and enrichment.

The first week of each intersession will be focused on academic remediation for students who are identified by their teachers as needing additional support.

The second week will be for enrichment camps, such as STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), coding or music.

The third week will include a variety of activities led by staff from the Greater Richmond YMCA. That would be an expansion of the after-school program the Y already offers at Bellwood and the county’s other less affluent schools.

Because of the intersessions, Bellwood students potentially could attend school for as many as 220 days under the year-round calendar.

John Gordon, chief of schools for CCPS, told the School Board earlier this month that the school system intends to limit student participation to 150 for each intersession.

But Superintendent James Lane said if the school system gets funding from the state’s Extended School Year Grant program, it will be able to accommodate all 557 Bellwood students.

“Knowing the Bellwood community, we’re envisioning that all of the families may be interested in it,” he added. “If the funding comes through, we will make sure every student has the opportunity.”

According to Gordon, 369 of the 416 Bellwood parents (89 percent) who responded to the school system’s survey supported the change to a year-round schedule.

Only 44 (11 percent) said they’d request a waiver to send their children to another school if Bellwood goes to a year-round schedule.

Two hundred ninety-five parents, or 71 percent, said they’d be comfortable with their middle or high school students being on a different school calendar, Gordon said .

That has been one of the concerns most frequently cited by opponents of year-round schooling. Sonia Smith, president of the Chesterfield Education Association, recalled living in Hampton in the late 1990s when the city’s school system implemented a year-round calendar as a pilot program at one of its elementary schools.

“There was a lot more push-back from the community than expected and that concerned me,” she said. “As educators, we know what ‘brain drain’ is. You’d think parents would want to combat that, too, but many of them were more concerned with vacation time.”

Smith was “disheartened” when Hampton’s school system abandoned the year-round schedule after just one year, but she said Bellwood teachers are excited for the opportunity to pilot it in Chesterfield.

“They’re eager to see how it will help their students,” she added. “I haven’t heard anything negative.”

Advocates for year-round schooling say it more effectively addresses many students’ developmental needs than the traditional schedule, which was developed when America was largely an agrarian society and required children to work in the fields all summer.

In 2014, following a study conducted by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe awarded $1.6 million in grants to support year-round instruction at 29 Virginia schools.

One of those schools, A.P. Hill Elementary in Petersburg, saw students’ SOL test scores improve by 22 points in English and 29 points in math after adopting a year-round schedule for the 2014-15 school year.

By 2016, the state’s Extended School Year Grant program had grown to include 66 schools that received a total of $7.7 million.

“We’re always looking to be innovative,” Gordon said. “Innovation doesn’t have to mean new technology.”

The pilot program at Bellwood is expected to cost about $123,000 for the first year. All but $30,000 of that will be covered by a federal grant the school received last year. Lane said the school system can cover that amount even if it isn’t approved for a state grant.

“Money won’t be a barrier for at least the first two years,” he added.

School officials likewise appear comfortable having students attend school in an aging building in late July and August, when temperatures in the Richmond region typically hover in the mid-to-high 90s.

Bellwood has served as a host site for summer school since its HVAC unit was replaced a few years ago, Gordon noted.

“We haven’t had any concerns with the building being used over the summer,” he said.

School Board Chairman John Erbach said if the Bellwood pilot program is successful, it could be implemented at other Chesterfield schools with large groups of economically disadvantaged students.

Bennett, the University of Connecticut emeritus professor, described the school system’s efforts to help those students as “laudable.” He doesn’t think it has to implement a year-round school model to fight summer learning loss, however.

In the early 1990s, Bennett’s team received a grant from the federal GEAR UP program and began working with a group of fifth- and sixth-grade students in Hartford.

They held evening study sessions during the school year to help the students with their homework, but they did most of their work on weekends and over the summer: taking the children on field trips to museums, libraries, concerts and exposing them to an array of other enrichment opportunities they had never experienced.

At that time, more than one-quarter of Hartford’s public school students never returned to school for 10th grade after the summer. About half didn’t graduate from high school and very few went on to college, Bennett said.

Among the cohort of students that worked with his GEAR UP team, Bennett claimed all of them made it past 10th grade, more than 90 percent graduated and roughly half went on to some form of post-secondary education.

“One of the great things about enrichment opportunities is kids try things that they don’t succeed at right away,” Bennett said. “They learn that it’s OK to make mistakes. That’s really what we all learn from.”

Bennett said Chesterfield’s economically disadvantaged students can be exposed to similar academic and cultural enrichment without having to make it “summer school in disguise.”

“It’s more of a practical thing because you don’t have to disrupt as many people’s schedules,” he added. “I just happen to think there’s a better way.” ¦

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