June 21, 2006

Eye On Education

Year Round Education: 20 Years Later

It's June again and that signifies impending summer vacation for schools and millions of students across the country. It also signifies the archaic and wasteful practice of putting educational learning opportunities on hold for a couple of months and disabling multimillion dollar school buildings and all of the equipment and material financed by taxpayers. I would compare the situation to those military ships they used to hold in dry dock along the Hudson. I remember their primary usage was for grain storage. Pretty expensive silos, no?

Twenty years ago, as Sag Harbor's superintendent I put together a proposal called Extend-Ed which was unanimously endorsed by the then Sag Harbor School Board. The program consisted of about 35 course offerings to students from Kindergarten through Grade 12. It was to be a voluntary program, and my idea was that if we could break the ice surrounding the antiquated notion that learning is restricted to the months from September to June, we might get a foot in the door for providing students opportunities to improve and develop skills, indulge their creative instincts, provide orientation and readiness for future educational challenges, and a host of other reasoned rationales. We'd also make use of buildings, supplies and equipment, and human resources that are wastefully mothballed during the summer.

The entire program costs, including salaries, materials and equipment, etc. was not to exceed $70,000. The courses varied in length from a week to several weeks. The hours were flexible to allow for those students holding summer jobs. In addition to Sag Harbor teaching staff, some local artists, musicians, and other gifted members of our area had developed mini- courses to share their talents with Sag Harbor students.

Sag Harbor received a great deal of publicity on the proposal in some of the major newspapers. I was invited to speak at the Year Round Education Association's annual conference in Anaheim, California where I presented Project Extend-Ed to a nationwide audience. It was well received and there were many follow-up inquiries, especially from western states.

But on May 13, 1987, Sag Harbor voters rejected the proposal by a vote of 712-312. Welcome to reality, Mr. Annacone. Let me say it again. This had to be one of the most shortsighted responses by voters to an educational proposal that was both reasonable in cost, and in my mind, a breakthrough for promoting the idea of continuous education. Let's review the arguments for a year round school calendar:

Continuous Learning

The concept that people learn from ages six to 21, between the hours of eight and three, and from September to June has been refuted and proven invalid through the years. Continuous learning is evident in the proliferation of preschool programs, adult education, night schools, flexible curriculum paths, Distance Learning, and the influence of the Internet.

Overcoming Regression

Let's face facts. Most students view summer as a time to put their intellects on hold and play. The negative effects of this intellectual hibernation is especially harmful to children with borderline academic skills. Just as one's body atrophies through disuse, so does one's mind. A two month hiatus from learning results in a kind of intellectual stagnation. When school resumes in September, many teachers find they must reteach skills and concepts students had once mastered but lost over the summer months.

Individual Needs

Year-round school offerings would better accommodate the needs of individual students. The lockstep notion that people learn skills and develop mastery in a rigid 10 month, 12 year schedule is truly ridiculous. FBI agents learn foreign language skills in a couple of months. How long did it take you to learn to ride a bike? Would it make sense to argue you must learn that skill in two weeks? The same thought applies to algebra. Some might require 12 months to master the subject matter and instead of labeling those who haven't succeeded in the 10-month period failures, why not simply announce the course runs for the entire year with options to pass exit exams at any time?

Curriculum Flexibility

When schools are locked into scheduling constraints requiring 20 week semesters, five day weeks and 40 minute instructional periods, instruction can't be customized to meet the needs of students. Extended school year programs could include mini courses of two or three week duration for such practical skills as keyboarding, conversational language, introduction to the internet, and how to take notes. Extended programming could also compensate for the short-shrift given to arts programs during the regular school year because of the curriculum rigidity imposed by the current academic testing mania.

Here's a sampling of the 35 Extend-Ed course offerings from the 1987 syllabus:

-KinderPrep. A two-week orientation mini course for pre-kindergarten students to acclimate them for their Kindergarten year.

-Bridge Over River K. An extension of the kindergarten year for students requiring additional time to make the transition to Grade 1.

The Great Books Program. (All grade levels.) Discussing and analyzing the world's greatest literature in readings compiled by the Great Books Foundation.

Story-Art and the Young. A course for students and their parents to explore the world of the environment and imagination through storytelling, observation, water coloring, and shared dialog.

Basic Skills Improvement. (All grade levels.) A learning laboratory setting to assist students on an individual basis in the acquisition of learning skills including, but not limited to reading, math, language arts, thinking skills, and writing.

Accelerated High School Courses:(These might be offered in the evening.) Designed for students who wish to achieve an earlier graduation date.

Exploring the Marine Environment: In conjunction with Project Oceanology from New London, Connecticut, students will collect and study marine specimens and study the marine environment aboard a 50- foot fully equipped learning laboratory in local waters.

The United States still trails many other industrialized nations in academic achievement. It's not surprising since we fail to recognize the information age places demands on learning that transcend a school year, one that was scheduled to provide an agrarian society with a youth labor force during the summer months. We evolved from that agrarian society decades ago and yet the calendar remains.

Countries such as Japan have recognized the need to provide education for a school year that exceeds 210 days, well beyond our 180 day calendar.

With more time for learning, the playing field could be leveled enabling our students to compete with their international peer group.

Will it ever happen?

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