Officials in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district say they are considering expanding calendars at nine schools — taking a cue from other districts in the state that have adopted year-round schedules.
Supporters say the schedule is beneficial to students and teachers, who get more frequent breaks. Critics, however, say implementation of such schedules often is tricky depending on the model adopted.
Year-round school is an emerging issue in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. But in Wake County it’s a thriving tradition with a 25-year history, and in neighboring Union County it’s an option that a handful of communities have embraced.
CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison says he likes the idea of spreading out school breaks, especially for the students most likely to lose academic ground during summer vacation.
He and the school board recently discarded a plan to create one complex version of year-round school at First Ward Elementary. But CMS leaders and private donors are exploring another approach that would add days to the calendar at up to nine west Charlotte schools next year.
“I think we should be able to look flexibly at a number of options,” Morrison said last week.
Educators who have experience with year-round school say they and the students’ families love it.
“There are definite, distinct advantages when you are a child,” says Carmen Miller, principal of Wake’s Willow Springs Elementary. She says students don’t lose skills on three-week breaks, which means teachers spend less time reviewing.
“From a teacher perspective it’s fantastic,” Miller adds. “About the time that you really need a break you get one.”
But firsthand accounts and research raise cautions: Changing the calendar is complicated and can be costly. Academic benefits are far from guaranteed, depending mostly on how well teachers use their time and what kind of support at-risk students get during breaks.
“Change is very difficult,” says John Wall Jr., who led year-round middle and high schools in Raleigh before becoming principal of West Charlotte High this summer. “We want to make the right change to help kids be successful.”
Debate over the academic calendar has raged for decades, with alternatives appearing and disappearing across the country. CMS has tested the water a few times with isolated year-round elementary schools. For more than a decade it has had no year-round schools.
Districts like Wake that have embraced year-round school are often driven by crowding. Wake started planning for year-round school in 1987, with the first school converting two years later. Now 50 of 169 schools – 40 elementaries and 10 middle schools – are on year-round calendars.
They all use a multitrack model, which rotates students and teachers so one group is off while three others fill the classrooms. That’s the version that the CMS board approved in 2010 for First Ward, an uptown arts magnet that was slated to merge with University Park Elementary in 2013.
Looking at multitrack calendars, with schedules for each group in bands of primary colors, reminds some people of a Rubik’s cube. It’s an apt metaphor for the challenge of making all the pieces come together.
Teachers move in and out of classrooms with their students as they cycle through breaks. Because the full student body and faculty are never “on” at the same time, everything from faculty meetings to student performances to school photos must be done twice. While classroom teachers rotate, principals need to provide year-round staffing for everything else: maintenance, the cafeteria, the library, busing, office staff, and classes such as gym, music and technology.
In his previous job in Reno, Nev., Morrison had 10 multitrack year-round schools. After reviewing the First Ward plan, he concluded it would not be worth the expense and challenge. As staff were preparing to schedule students for next year’s shuffle, Morrison and the board pulled the plug.
Not for everyone…