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2018-06-13 / Featured / Front Page

School’s in for summer: Bellwood Elementary set to go year-round

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


Students at Bellwood Elementary make their way to the buses after school lets out last week. On July 23, Bellwood students will be back to start a new year. 
ASH DANIEL Students at Bellwood Elementary make their way to the buses after school lets out last week. On July 23, Bellwood students will be back to start a new year. ASH DANIEL It’s nearing the end of the school day at Bellwood Elementary, and you can almost feel the excitement in the air.

On the sidewalk outside, a group of kids share a red ball under a blue, cloud-filled sky. Another cluster of children runs around on the school’s football field, playing a tag-like game. Inside, hallways fill for the last class change of the day. It’s the week before school lets out for summer, and the anticipation is palpable.

Bellwood, however, will reopen next month as Chesterfield’s first year-round school. Instead of having one long summer break and beginning the 2018-19 school year in September, its teachers and students will be back in class starting July 23. The school’s new calendar still will have the state-mandated 180 days of instruction, spread over four nine-week sessions with three-week breaks in between. School officials hope moving to a year-round model will positively impact students academically, particularly those from low-income families; that with less time away from school at a stretch, students will retain more of what they learn and fend off the so-called “summer slide.”

Shelby Bartilotti, a fourth- and fifth-grade special education teacher at Bellwood Elementary, is looking forward to the school’s conversion to a year-round model. Bartilotti says she’s seen the negative effects of the summer slide first hand. ASH DANIEL Shelby Bartilotti, a fourth- and fifth-grade special education teacher at Bellwood Elementary, is looking forward to the school’s conversion to a year-round model. Bartilotti says she’s seen the negative effects of the summer slide first hand. ASH DANIEL During the breaks in Bellwood’s new school year – called intersessions – students will have the ability to take remedial or elective coursework, potentially adding up to 42 school days during the first year of the new schedule.

This change could impact more than just Bellwood: If the model is successful, there’s talk of moving Falling Creek Elementary and Falling Creek Middle to this schedule. All three schools draw students from neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty.

As Chesterfield’s poverty rate continues to grow, Bellwood’s pilot program could have a far-reaching impact for CCPS schools.

Sitting in an office at Bellwood, Shelby Bartilotti says she’s seen the brain drain of summer first hand.

Recently, Bartilotti taught the same class of students two years in a row, and was surprised by the amount of information the students forgot over the summer. Fractions, for example, had to be retaught.

Because of this “summer slide,” Bartilotti says that she and other teachers often spend the first few weeks of the school year reviewing coursework from the previous year. With the new model, the hope is that they’ll retain more of what they’ve learned.

“I do think it’s going to help my students,” says Bartilotti, a fourth- and fifth-grade special education teacher at Bellwood.

Amanda McCullough, Bellwood’s special education coordinator, agrees.

“When you don’t use something for six weeks, it just starts to go away,” says McCullough, who previously taught multiple grades at the elementary school level. “This is going to give them a chance to work really hard and take a rest.”

The conversation of moving Bellwood to a year-round model began within the school system last October. Looking to improve academic achievement – especially in relation to summer reading loss – CCPS officials visited year-round schools in Wake County, North Carolina, and Alexandria, Virginia, to see what impact the different schedule had.

John Gordon, CCPS chief of schools, says what they saw was positive.

“The kids were also happy, because they thought they had a reset every nine weeks,” he explains, adding that there were other benefits: “They did see a dramatic decrease in discipline referrals, because the kids had a break from each other.”

During the first two weeks of intersession at Bellwood, which will be taught by CCPS teachers, students will spend the mornings in either remedial courses or in academic electives; the second half of the day will be spent in clubs. The YMCA will take over care and transportation of the students during the third week.

Enrollment for intersessions at Bellwood is capped at 150 students, based on academic need. Teachers can volunteer to teach during their intersession, or those positions can be filled with substitute and retired teachers. Intersession staffing will include 13 teachers and two instructional aides, putting the pupil-teacher ratio at about 12 to 1.

“During each intersession, our plan is to address [students’] needs and [work with] them where their weakest areas are, rather than wait until the summer,” says Bellwood principal Jennifer Rudd.

Teachers hope that this additional time will lead to more creative instruction possibilities in the classroom. There’s been talk, for instance, of creating a Harry Potter book study in the morning, followed by a Quidditch Club in the afternoons.

“You get to be really out of the box,” Bartilotti says.

Still, the new model isn’t without its challenges, particularly for Bellwood’s teachers. McCullough, for instance, will be on a different schedule than her three teenagers. While missing out on part of a normal summer vacation might be difficult, McCullough and Bartilotti say they’re looking forward to their three-week break in September and October.

“To be honest, that first July/August is probably going to be tough,” McCullough says. “As it gets closer, I think everyone is getting a little nervous, [but] I think everyone is excited about the opportunity.”

Meanwhile, the school system likely won’t stop with Bellwood. As Chesterfield’s poverty rate continues to grow – and the summer slide often impacts economically disadvantaged students most of all – other schools may soon join Bellwood. There’s been discussion of converting Falling Creek Elementary and Falling Creek Middle to the year-round model; more than 70 percent of students at all three schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, a proxy measure of poverty.

“We really believe that we will be able to extend this to other schools in the future,” Gordon says.

While school officials hope the switch will lead to greater academic achievement, researchers caution that any gains made may be minor.

Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, first encountered year-round schooling while serving as a school board member in Mississippi. Years later, Cooper launched a study to understand the impact of year-round schooling, which he says was the first to look at cumulative gains over the course of multiple years.

“Our findings suggested that the alternative calendar certainly didn’t have any negative effects [and] had a small positive effect, especially for students from low-income families,” Cooper says. “While it might be just a little bit each year, over the course of an elementary school career, it could have a larger effect.”

The key in making up the difference is intersessions, he says. By the time students hit summer school, they’ve already fallen too far behind.

“Every nine weeks, an intervention can be instituted to help pull those kids up, rather than having to wait all of that time that you wait in a traditional school calendar,” Cooper says.

Steven McMullen, associate professor of economics at Hope College in Michigan, says there are two primary reasons school systems adopt a year-round calendar: overcrowding and the summer slide.

McMullen studied the 2007 conversion of 22 Wake County schools to the year-round model. As part of the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, Wake had undergone a rapid population expansion and was unable to build schools fast enough to keep up with the demand. Instead, the school system decided to undergo “multi-tracking,” a term for staggering a school year to physically fit more students into each building. The effect on students, McMullen says, was minimal.

“On average, students didn’t seem to learn more, nor did they learn less if they were in a year-round school,” McMullen says. “If anybody is trying to sell year-round schools as a way of really transforming student learning, probably they’re not looking at really good data. I haven’t seen any evidence that this is going to result in significant test score gains on average.”

That said, McMullen says there was evidence that students who were performing below average academically – particularly those in poverty – might be slightly more positively impacted than the rest of the population.

As teachers across Chesterfield look forward to summer vacation, Bartilotti is excited to see what the new school year will bring.

“I want to do what’s best for my kids,” she adds. “I want to do what’s best for my school.” ¦

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