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Education issues: Year-round school would be worthy replacement of today's tired schedule

The idea of a year-round calendar for kindergarten through 12th-graders is enjoying renewed interest. The federal government leaves the length of school years to states, and most states require about 182 days a year of scheduled school. Minnesota...

The idea of a year-round calendar for kindergarten through 12th-graders is enjoying renewed interest. The federal government leaves the length of school years to states, and most states require about 182 days a year of scheduled school. Minnesota, interestingly, has one of the lowest requirements at 180 days.

The common school-year schedule has its origins back in the 1800s when the nation's population was largely employed in agriculture. It made economic sense to close schools in summer so able-bodied youngsters could help on family farms. Despite the majority of the population moving to urban centers, school calendars remained unchanged.

Youngsters became needed in non-farm enterprises that catered to summer businesses and vacationers. In Minnesota, the Legislature voted to prohibit schools from opening until after Labor Day as a way to keep the under-16 labor pool available through the end of the vacation season.

Most experienced elementary teachers reported that it takes about a month after school begins in September to catch up some students to where they were when school ended in May. Research confirms their observations. Of course, not all students lose momentum over the summer; it's often the poorest students, or the poorest-performing students, who seem to lose the most ground.

Summertime divides students into two groups. One group falls into a black hole of limited information and learning. The other is fortunate to have parents or guardians who keep learning going by way of fascinating activities, field trips, interesting material to read at home and lots of stimulating conversation. It's not surprising the latter group has a strong correlation with income level; a higher income can lead to more stimulating summers.

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The No Child Left Behind initiative, while flawed in many ways, does have some redeeming features. One is the attention it focuses on poor-performing students, something that has revived interest in year-round schools. Most experts agree going to school more than 180 days a year would be good for most students, especially students who are falling behind. Most other industrialized countries have longer school calendars than the U.S.

The hitch is figuring out how to pay for schools beyond 180 days, especially when the federal government is terribly in debt and spending far more than it takes in. The feds already don't even fully fund special education or NCLB. That leaves it up to states to grow school calendars. And though most states, including Minnesota, are doing well, legislatures seem reluctant to fund schools beyond their current levels of operation.

So what to do?

If the school year were expanded to 220 days -- an increase of 40 days, or about eight more weeks of school -- extra teachers would be needed and teachers' salaries would have to be increased by about 20 percent. Also, building budgets for things like air conditioning would have to be increased by about 15 percent. That's a hefty cost, especially with the overall economy staggering a bit.

But there's a creative solution: School calendars could be maintained at 180 days with changes in the way those 180 days are allocated. At present, most schools run consecutive weeks from September through May with a week off for the winter religious holidays and occasional days off for other holidays and staff training. A 180-day, year-round school calendar would feature three consecutive weeks of school followed by a week off beginning in September and running until August. Students and teachers then would get a month-long break. That'd still be 180 days -- granted, with some additional expenses, including air conditioning during warmer months.

Some U.S. schools already are operating this way, and the calendar is proving popular with teachers and parents who like the creativity of having every fourth week away from scheduled classes. They can travel, engage in alternate learning experiences and, in some cases, involve slow students in remedial assistance.

The schedule obviously creates problems for parents who have to arrange special day care when students are not in school and for businesses that rely on low-wage youngsters for summer employment.

Still, the 180-day, year-round schedule has delivered on its promise. It significantly reduces the usual three-month summer learning slump and proves beneficial in providing timely tutoring to students falling behind. Amazingly, soccer and baseball coaches find ways to adapt practices and game schedules to accommodate the longer school year.

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Will the public be willing to make adjustments to the school schedule to improve the efficiency of public education? Eventually, I feel -- and hopefully well before the threat from the Chinese and Indian educational systems drive us to the wall.

Tom Boman is a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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