As most districts across Michigan prepare for a state-mandated post-Labor Day start to the school year, some have already been in session for several weeks. Others are never really out of session.
Although not common, almost 500 year-round schools can be found in about three dozen states, including Michigan, at the elementary, middle and high school levels, according to the National Association for Year-Round Education.
One such school, Alexander Macomb Academy in Mt. Clemens, a conventional public school north of Detroit, has been in session since Aug. 14. The K-6 school conducts classes until the third week in June, giving students about six weeks off in the summer, compared to the more than two months students in most schools receive.
“Being off so long in the summer can lead to what is called ‘learning loss’ because the kids forget so much,” Macomb Academy Principal Sharon Gryzenias said. “Even with the shorter time off here, we give the kids packets that are grade-appropriate with books, flash cards and a writing journal. Things to keep them thinking.”
Gryzenias said the school also has a subscription to StudyIsland.com that students can access from home. The site provides games, tests and other activities in a variety of subjects, including math, science, history and foreign languages.
Aside from a longer school year, Macomb also has a longer school day. Students there attend for seven hours and 45 minutes, an hour more than other elementary schools in the district.
“Having a longer day means the teachers can get everything in that they need to,” Gryzenias said. “They can really get deep into a topic.”
Gryzenias said students get at least 90 minutes a day of English/language arts, plus 60 minutes of a specialized class, such as physical education, science lab or art.
The unique approach is working, Gryzenias said. With a 70 percent minority student population, including several who are low-income, the school has achieved Adequate Yearly Progress every year, and all teachers on staff are rated “Highly Qualified” under federal No Child Left Behind Act requirements.
“All of our third and sixth graders were above their state averages in every category of the MEAP,” Gryzenias said. “I would highly recommend this for anyone. It’s made an enormous difference for the students.”
Gryzenias said the longe r days, and more of them, can be a bit difficult for kindergarten students, who attend school for a full day.
“During the first semester, they think it’s a pretty long day,” she said. “They usually have a rest break in the afternoon, but in the second semester that gets phased out. There’s just too much for them to do.”
Because Macomb is in session 200 days a year, it is considered a year-round school under Michigan law, and thereby not subject to the post-Labor Day law. Other year-round schools are in session virtually year-round, with shorter breaks spread between sessions. At two elementary schools in Highland’s Huron Valley, students attend four sessions of 45 days each, with 15 days off in between.
“The year-round students attend the same number of days, use the same curriculum, same text books, it’s just split differently,” Highland Elementary School Principal Bruce Bendure said.
Both Highland and Kurtz elementary schools have year-round and nine-month students within the same building.
“It can be tricky, but it’s a popular choice among parents,” Bendure told MER, referring to Huron Valley’s participation in Michigan’s school choice program. “We have neighborhood kids who come here and do either track, and we also have school choice by parents across the district.”
Bendure said the students have recess and lunch at the same time, and all fifth graders go to yearly camp at the same time.
“It’s not as delineated as you might think,” he said. “We have it aligned so everyone has the same major holidays, in-service days and breaks.”
For year-round students at Highland and Kurtz, a typical school year goes from late August to late October, mid November to mid February, early March to mid May and mid June to late July, with breaks in between.
“Very few teachers leave year-round once they get into it,” Bendure said. “And once families get involved, they tend to stay through it.”
Bendure said the year-round and ninemonth programs are aligned such that a student should be able to transition from one to the other without much trouble.
“There is the issue of learning loss, but I think that can be overstated,” Bendure said. “Some students need more remediation than others after any type of break, but I think parents who would make the choice of year-round tend to be involved anyway.”
Bendure said that parental involvement often means keeping the kids busy with reading and other learning activities during the mini-breaks.
Whether it entails summer reading programs and on-line learning such as what is used by Macomb Academy, or filling in mini-breaks with unique educational opportunities, conventional public schools in this regard are following the example set by home-school parents for many years.
Bendure said Huron Valley’s plan is to consolidate the two year-round programs into one school that operates solely on a year-round calendar. “We’re trying to be cost effective,” he said.
About 3,000 year-round schools operate nationwide, with half of them in California. There are 30 year-round schools in Michigan, according to the National Association for Year-Round Education.
“The west and southwest can’t build schools fast enough,” Bendure said. “When you have multi-tracks, you can get 33 percent higher capacity.”
In year-round education, multi-track means more than one group of students using the same building at different times. A building designed to accommodate 750 students, NAYRE says, can hold 1,000 students with four tracks of 250 students each. The school still has 750 students at all times, with one group, or track, always on break on a rotating basis. A single-track is when just one group of students uses the year-round program. Variations of both kinds of tracks can include a 45-15, 60-20 or 90-30 split.
Opponents of year-round schools point to a lack of data that shows better academic performance, as well as the effects on family calendars, summer tourism and the lack of air conditioning in many older buildings.
“Some people are just really stuck on that summer vacation,” Bendure said. “But other families love it. They can go somewhere in the fall and not battle the crowds in the spring.”