I must continually remind myself that I live in Lee County, NC. It is futile to ask meaningful questions of the Lee County School System (LCSS). Still, I marvel at how the LCSS Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) Committee came right out of left field with a recommendation to transition all grades, Kindergarten through 8th grade, to year-round schooling (beginning next school year)? Such a sweeping change would represent a major shift in resources and intrude on traditional annual planning for families. This startling recommendation begs two questions- Why? and Why now?
The only plausible answers I could come up with: this recommendation is a ‘red herring’ meant to divert attention away from Dr. Jeff Moss and his management of the Lee County Schools and to help justify increasing local tax obligations to fund our schools. Let’s face facts, Dr. Moss is both a lightning rod for attention and an instigator of dissension. His expletive-laced tirade at the CEAD Forum in October caused him undue attention at a time when school programs were garnering close and justifiable financial scrutiny. He needed to change the dialogue. Introducing the year-round school calendar debate probably fits this niche, though it really shouldn’t.
Year-round school calendars have been hawked by progressives since the 1880’s. The practice has never really caught on. Why is that? Regardless of its method of implemention, year-round schooling does not result in consistent, discernible, and replicable improvements in student performance across the spectrum of student population groups, ages and circumstances. Besides, the cost of year-round schooling is not a ‘wash’ as many suggest; it always costs more money, not to mention the impact on family social and employment considerations that are too easily dismissed.
Year-round school solutions simply are not a panacea for school district educational challenges. Simply stated, year-round schools do not lead to better student performance. Studied results from around the country are mixed at best. There have been some areas of notable improvement in student performance, along with some areas of notable decline associated with a year-round calendar. In general, the greatest improvements noted in studies have been with students in ‘at risk’ populations, typically of poorer socio-economic status. Greatest improvements seem to be attained by about the Third Grade and may render as much as a 9% improvement in reading scores. After that point, nearly all studies show a gradual return to the performance levels of traditional calendar students by about the Eighth Grade. High school students actually show declines in performance in year-round calendar situations; especially true in math and reading performance. Changing to a district-wide year-round calendar for K-8 students ‘might’ have a marginally positive affect on some groups of students; but the marginal improvement hardly seems worth the the impact of changing our district calendar so radically, or the family disruptions that would ensue
Year-round schools cost substantially more to operate, regardless of rhetoric to the contrary. Generally speaking, year-round programs cost an average of 10% more to operate. Year-round proponents often state that using a year-round calendar actually results in better use of space because classrooms and buildings are dormant less. Belying this assertion is the fact there are still only 180-184 instructional days in the school year, regardless of the calendar. Plus, utility costs per instructional day are not constant. Cooling and heating costs vary by school, location, and season. Average daily costs are simply insufficient to use to determine operating costs. Cooling costs alone during the months of June, July, and August can be significant in central North Carolina. Maintenance suffers in year-round programs across most districts that employ year-round schedules. Less time can be built into a calendar year for extended and periodic maintenance. Simple things like waxing floors and painting walls are hindered. Major repairs simply cannot get done without periodically interfering with classroom instruction. If the LCSS C&I Committee has access to information that shows Tramway Elementary costs less to operate year-round than its sister school, Bullock Elementary, then Dr. Moss should use that data to justify the jump to a year-round calendar.
Tramway Elementary, is the only Lee County school presently on a year-round calendar. The mere fact that it is different imposes issues on the community. We often hear the lament, ‘What about the year-round students’ when conflicts exist for such things as recreation activities, scouts, or 4-H. Well, what about it? Parents chose Tramway’s program; they were not compelled to use it. They voluntarily agreed to conform their families’ schedules to the year-round school calendar. This situation wouldn’t go away, even if the district changed to a K-12 year-round calendar. The change would have to be compelled, not voluntary. Many families simply desire an extended summer period with flexibility for parents and children to work, vacation, or enjoy summer recreational activities whenever they prefer.
One other explanation for this new year-round school initiative is the outcome of the recent local elections and the conservative shift in the board of county commissioners. In their first meeting, this new board served notice of its intent to terminate the supplemental school funding it had been giving LCSS the past two years. The commissioners also instructed the county manager to plan for reduced school funding in areas the Evergreen financial review discovered opportunities for cost savings. What better way to build an argument for sustained or increased public school funding from local taxpayers than to change to year-round schools, which we know are more costly?
Since there are few measureable positives for a year-round school calendar, and several measureable negatives, the question remains unanswered. There is no justifiable reason to make this change. Therefore, the matter might well be a red herring tossed out by the superintendent — through his two puppets on the C&I Committee — to shift the topic of discussion from his recent abhorrent behavior and looming financial scrutiny of the school budget by the conservative-leaning board of commissioners. Let us hope that Lee County School Board will avoid this silly distraction and take the opportunity in coming months to more closely examine their budget for waste and inefficiency. Surely, there are more cost effective and efficient ways to do educate our children. And if none can be found, then the next conversations should be on the subject of replacing our superintendent and helping the legislature in Raleigh legislate state-wide school reforms.