In a city where there’s the potential to see snow fall in 10 out of 12 months, it’s hard to make the case that our school boards should shorten the summer vacation for everyone and move towards year-round education. But modified calendars have been received more favourably in the United States: according to the National Association for Year-Round Education, there are about 3000 American schools using it today. North of the border, there are about 100.
The first year-round school in Canada was the Terry Fox School in Calgary, which opened in 1995. The concept has always been more popular in that city than in Edmonton. The Calgary Board of Education has about 20 public schools on a modified calendar, and the Catholic board has seven.
Research conducted at the Johns Hopkins School of Education has found that students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds lose significantly more academic skills over an extended summer vacation than those from more advantaged backgrounds.
One study, conducted in Baltimore in 2006 titled Longitudinal Effects of a Multiyear Summer School,” showed that while students from middle and higher-income families lose about one month of grade-level equivalency over the summer, those students from lower socio-economic families lose about three. Worse, the losses had a cumulative effect over the years, contributing to an overall achievement gap that could make the difference between a student dropping out of high school or going on to post-secondary education.
All students, regardless of socio-economic class, experience some learning loss over summer vacation. However, economically disadvantaged students tend to lose far more reading and writing skills over the summer than those from wealthier families.More affluent familes can afford a variety of learning opportunities during the summer months, whether it be camps or travel or a stay-at-home parent who is available to keep the children engaged intellectually. The result is that children from wealthier homes are further ahead when the new school year starts.
Edmonton Catholic Schools has three schools offering a year-round calendar, which divides the requisite instructional days into four terms with vacation breaks between each of them.
After a five-week summer break that begins at the end of June, the same time as the traditional calendar, students at St Alphonsus Elementary/Jr High, Mother Teresa Elementary and St Catherine Elementary/Jr High returned to school on August 11.
In exchange for the truncated summer vacation, these students enjoy a two-week Thanksgiving break, a two-week Christmas break (same as the rest of the schools), and a two-week Spring Break in March. They’ll also enjoy two extra-long long weekends. All three schools are located in economically disadvantaged areas of the city.
St Catherine, located in the central neighbourhood of McDougall, began offering year-round schooling in 2010, the year before Dwain Tymchyshyn took over as principal. He says that while he’s not able to offer statistical data to prove the program’s success, he says it works for his school, which has an extremely high immigrant population.
“While we saw slight gains in provincial achievement test results for Grade 6 and 9 students,” he says, “the biggest impact year-round schooling has had is with language retention.” He explains that the students at his school come from as many as 30 different countries and speak up to 50 different languages. “Eighty-five percent of our students have English as a second language and English is not usually spoken at home,” he says. “The shorter breaks really help them retain their English.”
The number of instructional days for year-round students is the same as those following the traditional calendar. Provincial legislation allows that the number of instructional days may vary from 190 to 200 days and gives school boards broad leeway as long as kindergarten students receive 475 instructional hours and those in elementary and junior high receive 950.
Jason Wallin is an associate professor of Media and Youth Culture in Curriculum at the University of Alberta and the assistant editor for the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He thinks we’re due for a conversation about how we conceptualize education that goes beyond talking about calendars.
“Cases can and have been made for the potential benefits and disadvantages of year-round schooling. This is not a particularly new debate,” he says. “What this debate often obfuscates, however, is the insight that schools might be rethought apart from traditional models or rather, that the structure of the school, from its conceptualization of time to its utilization of space, can always be rethought for the benefit of students and teachers.”
With no major Canadian research studies to support the idea that year-round education significantly improves student outcomes, it’s important to note that the little data that is available holds a great deal of promise that year-round education is something that might be used as a tool to improve the outcome for those students struggling the most.
Edmonton Public School District had two schools that followed the year-round schooling schedule but both have since been closed by the board.
Eastwood was the first in the city to adopt year-round schooling with a three-year pilot project that began in August 1998 and showed positive results. Parkdale was added in 2001. Reports presented to trustees indicated that Eastwood student achievement results improved steadily with the introduction of year-round schooling.
Provincial achievement tests conducted for Grades 3, 6 and 9 students at Eastwood produced test scores that were at a five-year high In all subjects. Student attendance improved steadily, reaching nearly 90 percent in 2000 and a report presented to the board after the first year of year-round schooling with the prior year showed that suspensions decreased to 43 from 119 and that the number of students who completed the entire year increased to 60 percent from 40 percent. Edmonton Public closed Eastwood and Parkdale in 2010.
While year-round schooling might be a hard sell for Edmontonians who are confined to the indoors for much of the year, we need to start thinking about whether our school calendars unwittingly perpetuate a system where children from disadvantaged homes will remain at a disadvantage. With both Edmonton school boards grappling with some of the lowest completion rates in the country and the number of ESL students continuing to rise, maybe it’s time to reflect on how we deliver education to our students.
As Wallin puts it, “The organization of the school as we know it is not only a relatively recent social invention, but is only one of many ways in which the school can be imagined.”