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.