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Students thrive on year-round calendar

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While some parents and teachers have expressed their apprehension with the state Board of Education's push for a year-round balanced school year, Steve Knighton says he'd never go back to the traditional calendar that most West Virginia schools use.

Piedmont Elementary, where Knighton is principal, first implemented a year-round schedule 17 years ago.

"Everything that they threw up as a roadblock back then, we've been able to work out a solution for. After 17 years, you'd think it wouldn't still be debated -- that others would've tried it for themselves," Knighton said.

Since the year-round calendar has been active, both student and teacher attendance is up, along with grades, while discipline problems are down, according to Knighton.

On a balanced calendar, students attend school for nine weeks at a time, then are off in increments of three weeks instead of just the extended 10-week break in the summer. At Piedmont, the school year starts in early July, but students had three weeks off in December and are scheduled to have three weeks off in late March and early April.

"You take 10 weeks of work away from an adult and it would be hard to pick up as effectively as when you left," Knighton said. "If I didn't have my passwords written down for all of my programs I use, I'd never remember them after a summer."

Only four schools in West Virginia now have year-round classes: Piedmont and Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary in Kanawha County and Cameron Elementary and Cameron High School in Marshall County.

Cabell and Jefferson counties also are looking into the year-round calendar, according to the Department of Education.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education audit recommends that the state more strictly mandate 180 days of instruction time in schools. No school district in 2010 met the requirement -- in fact, 34 of the state's 55 districts were at 170 days or less, according to the audit.

In response, state Board of Education members recommended an alternative calendar to provide "more continuous learning," citing studies that show lower-income students lose significant ground during summer breaks.

The state school board isn't mandating that every county adopt the system, but is encouraging school systems to consider it and is working to make the transition easy.

"Well-intentioned governors, legislators, business groups and education groups have attempted to craft a way to assure that every student is in class at least 180 days each school year. Universally, they have failed," board members stated in their response to the audit.

"The legitimate need for staff development time, the desire to participate in meaningful extracurricular activities, the inevitable loss of attention near the end of a school year, and most ominously, the weather, all have conspired to prevent the ultimate goal of sufficient time for quality instruction leading to mastery for every student. So what is the answer?"

Knighton says the answer is a balanced school year.

"There's no one that would design a school year that we currently have if given the option. It just makes sense.

"It's silly to use an agrarian calendar that was used when kids had to harvest in an agricultural society," he said. "Now, that's not the case anymore, but somehow the calendar is the only thing that hasn't dramatically changed in the education system in all these years."

In addition to breaking up the "achievement gap" caused by long summer breaks, Knighton has seen his students benefit in other ways, too. "Layers of stress" are relieved because students aren't cramming information in, and are naturally retaining it better because of the continuous cycle.

Piedmont also offers 15 extra days of instruction that are optional for students.

The calendar helps students who don't eat a healthy hot meal regularly at home and can get it at school. Summer breaks can be "detrimental" to those children, Knighton said.

Knighton said he's heard outcry from teachers when he promotes the year-round system to others, but the system can be beneficial for teachers, too.

Teachers have more opportunities to schedule appointments and personal days ahead of time, meaning less substitutes, Knighton said. "When a sub is in the building, there's usually not much instruction going on," he said.

Many teachers work second jobs in the summer time, but Knighton said there are still options for additional income on the year-round calendar. Typically, substitute positions offer more than most second jobs many teachers have, such as retail.

Knighton has even heard praise from parents who are benefiting from the year-round model financially because they're taking vacations on the off-season when rates are lower.

The only problem Knighton runs into now is with families who have other children in the school system that do not run on the year-round model. Secondary schools have been especially harder to convert because of sports schedules.

"Should sports really drive an academic calendar?" he said. "The solution for the only problem we've run into is to get more schools -- all schools -- to switch to year-round."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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