Do Kids Really Need Summers Off?

BC just began allowing all schools to go year-round. What it's like for students and teachers who've already made the shift. First in a series.

By Aleksandra Sagan 2 May 2012 |

Aleksandra Sagan is a freelance journalist interested in health and education issues. Follow her on Twitter here.

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Students at Spul'u'kwuks Elementary in Richmond, a year-round school where test scores are higher than the norm. Photo: Aleksandra Sagan.

Now that British Columbia's Ministry of Education last week changed the School Act to allow school boards to switch to year-round calendars, a lot more people are going to be having the debate that happens every year in the Fetigan household.

What the Fetigans keep arguing about is how valuable, really, is a summer vacation for their two children?

For the Fetigans, it's no abstract matter. Their two children attend one of Richmond, B.C.'s highest-scoring schools, which already happens to run on a year-round calendar. For the first few years of their children's schooling, the couple couldn't find common ground. Lesley Fetigan believes the school's alternative calendar benefits her kids -- both academically and socially.

Her husband, partially nostalgic for the lazy, hazy summer days of his childhood, wants all kids to be free to enjoy the West Coast's best weather in July and August.

Despite the endless discussions, they haven't switched schools -- yet.

Eventually, Lesley's husband (who prefers not to give his first name) gave in. "I'm a big believer in sticking to my knitting," he says. "I know what I do and I do it well. And, Lesley knows what she does and she does it well." What she does is teach, though she is on sabbatical this year for personal reasons. Before that, she taught first grade at one of Surrey's inner-city schools -- and came to believe that summer's long break was making it harder for many of her students to learn.

So the couple's children, Liam, 9, and Emma, 7, attend Spul'u'kwuks Elementary. It's the Richmond district's first school with a balanced calendar. The kids and staff trade the typical, two-month summer vacation for shorter, more frequent breaks -- three-month terms conclude with one-month breaks in December, April and August. The Spul'u'kwuks balanced calendar started as a pilot project in 2004. Three years later, the school community voted to turn it into a permanent system. Lesley happily lets her kids attend the modified calendar school, believing that a long summer is detrimental to certain types of kids, and the balanced calendar can help students and teachers.

For example, over half of Spul'u'kwuks' 400 or so students are enrolled in the English as a Second Language program, according to the B.C. Ministry of Education. Eleanor McInenly, a woman with 20 years of teaching on her resume, works with this high population of English language learners. When the board introduced the balanced calendar, she was excited. Her intuition told her the shorter breaks would greatly benefit her students' needs.

About 70 per cent of Spul'u'kwuks students don't speak English at home. Outside of school, most speak Mandarin, Cantonese or other Chinese dialects, according to ministry statistics. In a two-month summer, those students can lose a lot of their English skills, she thought. But with just a one-month break, they could retain far more knowledge. "We need to make sure their exposure to English is the maximum that we can get," explains McInenly. She doesn't have any statistics to back up her claims -- only anecdotes.

No big academic improvements proven

Convincing statistics are hard to come by, since scholarly research on academic achievement in year-round schools is mostly inconclusive. It's almost impossible for a study to isolate the school calendar from other factors like curriculum, technology or teachers. Special interest groups make the academic research even harder to navigate. The National Association for Year-Round Education (NAYRE) exists solely to promote the balanced calendar. It is frequently attacked for producing biased research. But NAYRE doesn't conduct its own studies, says Charles Ballinger, the association's executive director emeritus. Regardless, most respected studies show only small academic improvements in year-round schools or none at all.

It's a highly contested point in education circles. Charlie Naylor, one of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation's (BCTF) senior researchers, remembers being accosted by a former NAYRE president at an international conference about a year after he published his research finding fault with year-round education. "He basically stood in front of me, glared at me and said, 'Are you still publishing that crap about attacking year-round schools?' " says Naylor. "It's normal for people to be able to disagree on research without coming up calling the stuff they do crap and kind of being very belligerent."

Despite the lack of research data, Eleanor McInenly believes the balanced calendar helps her English-language learners. They don't lose as much of their English skills over the shorter breaks. So she reviews less vocabulary at the start of a new term and can move straight to building on prior knowledge. And it wasn't just her language learners who the calendar helped.

Saved by the year-round bell?

Lesley Fetigan serves on the school's Parent Advisory Council (PAC). She and the other PAC mothers are all good friends. They meet at the Starbucks around the corner from the school frequently enough to know each other's regular drink orders. Diane Lincoln, the council's secretary, moved her family here from South Africa three years ago, uprooting her two young children. Her daughter, Kayla, was nine years old and doctors had already diagnosed her with a cognitive learning disability. Before the move, a corporate relocator tipped off the family about the balanced calendar school. They chose their house because it was within the school's catchment boundary. But Diane had no idea how much it would help her daughter. "She's actually blossomed. She's changed completely," says Diane. "And we've only been here for three years."

Kayla is a typical 12-year-old girl. She squabbles with her "annoying" younger brother and loves chatting with her friends on Facebook in a room plastered with teeny-bopper posters. She's eager to chat about Forbidden City, the book her class is reading in Language Arts -- her favourite subject. But she makes faces at the mention of gym -- her least favourite because of how much running is involved.

To Diane, it's a wonder her daughter loves school at all. In South Africa, Kayla's learning disability placed her in a special school, while her brother and cousins attended a nearby mainstream school. Her teachers held her back twice: once in the first grade and again in the second. "She was getting to the stage where she just didn't want to go to school. She wasn't interested," her mother recalls. "Here, I've not had one day where she said to me, 'I don't want to go to school.' "

Spul'u'kwuks' balanced calendar has helped Kayla thrive academically and socially. She's excited to learn to add and subtract, says her mother, loves spending time with her assigned buddy in a younger grade and enjoys being treated like every other child. Most importantly, says Diane, she doesn't lose too much knowledge or behavioural and social skills over the breaks. "For children specifically with learning disabilities who have a problem holding onto information," she adds, "it works brilliantly."

Summer can be habit-forming

Jamieson Lee is neither an English-language learner nor diagnosed with a learning disability. He happily attended Spul'u'kwuks from kindergarten to Grade 5 -- never knowing what a traditional summer felt like. Jamieson's dad, Tim Lee, remembers his son coming home with questions after noticing some unfamiliar kids playing in the schoolyard in July while he was sitting at his desk.

Last year, Jamieson got his first taste of a traditional summer after his parents transferred him into a French immersion program at a local middle school. Both his parents say the language classes were the only reason for the transfer.

Jamieson fondly recalls the relaxing days of summer where he did "absolutely nothing." He loved sleeping in -- sometimes until noon, he says, chuckling. After breakfast, he would meet his friends and play all day, only taking a quick break for lunch. He would head home around five to have dinner with his parents and then collapse in front of the television for the night. Schoolwork or reading were merely afterthoughts. "I think I read at least two, three books," he says. "Probably not as many as I should have." Not that anyone can blame him. Most parents would be proud that a 12-year-old boy was self-reflective enough to realize he could have read more.

His parents found it more difficult to keep him occupied during a 10-week vacation than the four-week stints they had gotten used to. They found their son quickly fell into the habits of sleeping in and lazing in front of the television, which didn't happen when he only had a month off. "Four weeks is enough time to take a break and get away from school," explains his mother, Erin Lee. "But it's not enough time to really get into a bad routine."

His father reminisces about the brief Spul'u'kwuks holidays. "Very quickly Jamieson was back into class again," he says. "So there really wasn't that time to slack, rest, sleep in, neglect his reading...." Luckily, with the guidance of his involved parents, Jamieson would quickly snap out of his bad habits in September, jumping back into the early-morning routing and delving into his homework.

This isn't the case for all students, says Lesley Fetigan. During her time teaching in an inner-city school, she's noticed that many of her students have a difficult time resuming the daily expectations of classroom life after being away for summer.

Every September, she has to spend at least two weeks reviewing basic behavioural expectations with her unruly students. "You wouldn't believe how much of my day is wasted because of behaviour problems," she says, showing her frustration. "If I can have kids that know their routines and can maintain those routines, I can do what I'm supposed to do." She thinks shorter breaks would help her students retain those skills and she could spend more time teaching.

For teachers, year-round 'balances their energies'

Last year, her daughter, Emma, started Grade 1 at Spul'u'kwuks. Every time the end of term neared, Lesley expected Emma to be doing "filler" work -- practicing for the holiday play or making ornaments from arts-and-crafts scraps. At her inner-city school, she and her colleagues are exhausted by the middle of May, she says. As for June? They just aim to get through it.

But that wasn't the case at Spul'u'kwuks. Emma's teacher taught right up to the last day of school. "I think the teachers are a lot more refreshed and able to go right till the end," says Lesley. "So June isn't a waste of time. July isn't a waste of time. They are learning in-depth until the bitter end because they're not burnt out."

The Spul'u'kwuks principal, Darlene Shandola, also noticed her teachers' high energy levels. "The three months on and one month off throughout the year balances their energies," says Shandola. "They're here because they like it."

Many of her teachers say they're able to keep going because the balanced calendar not only provides them with more energy, but also with a better organizational structure. They find the schoolwork and reporting schedules flow more smoothly. Three-month terms, says Shandola, are perfectly suited for teaching full units and effectively writing report cards.

Tomorrow, more from teachers and school administrators who say year-round schooling helps them do a better job -- and critics who raise concerns.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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