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Year-Round Schooling: Healthy or Not?

Fevered debate: How much would dropping summer vacation lower teacher stress and sick days? Second of three.

By Aleksandra Sagan, 3 May 2012, TheTyee.ca

Teacher Renata Hyrman

Teacher Renata Hyrman chose to transfer to year-round Spul'u'kwuks Elementary, and thinks it's allowed her to teach better with less stress.

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Yesterday we met the Fetigans, who debate back and forth whether the year-round school their children attend in Richmond, B.C. is a better world for them than one with longer, emptier summers. So far they are sticking with the year-round approach of Spul'u'kwuks Elementary.

Meet Renata Hyrman, who teaches Liam Fetigan and the rest of the Grade 4 and 5 split class there. She starts each term with a new unit teaching for five weeks and then reviewing concepts before a test on the eighth week. Then she writes report cards while her students do four weeks of supplementary activities, building on the original concept. The bonus? The kids have a harder time guessing what isn't going to be assessed for their final grade so they don't dismiss anything as busy work.

Time isn't used as effectively in the traditional calendar, says Hyrman. "The report card comes at completely the wrong time," she explains. "It comes at the end of November." No teacher will start a new unit in December, she clarifies. So the pre-Christmas month is usually wasted with three weeks of filler activities. Then teachers have to spend the next two semesters playing catch-up. Meanwhile, Hyrman can cover concepts more completely with her students, which really benefits the English language learners and special-needs students.

Hyrman bought into the balanced calendar philosophy before choosing to transfer to Spul'u'kwuks two years ago. She started teaching in British Columbia in 1985. Bright-eyed and eager, she spent a few years supply-teaching before settling into a permanent position. Meanwhile, the political landscape shifted as the provincial government slashed education funding. Her personal life also changed as she married and added two boys to her growing family. Slowly, the career pressures started wearing on her.

Only two per cent of teachers teach until they reach 65 years of age, according to research by the British Columbia Teachers' Federation. Stress seems to be a major reason, which Hyrman learned while training to be a wellness co-ordinator for the union. For five years, she traveled across the province presenting wellness seminars. She would stand before her colleagues in libraries, classrooms, and auditoriums across the province and start by uttering a shocking statistic: 70 per cent of long- and short-term sick leaves are stress related. "That is the reason that the balanced calendar should be everywhere," says Hyrman.

A healthier schedule?

Hyrman walks around her class, frequently crouching by a student's desk to answer a question. Most students hunch over their tables, busily working on letters to their newly assigned pen pals, with only a faint murmur of conversation in the background. It's early November and she's only taken one sick day this year -- a far cry from what she took in her previous 20-plus teaching years.

For the last 10 years before Spul'u'kwuks, around October and again in February, she became ill. At least once a year, it would be laryngitis. She calls it her laryngitis week because, for that alone, she would easily miss a week. "I was averaging... between 10 and 14 sick days a year for my personal illnesses," she says, "never mind my children." Her first year at Spul'u'kwuks, she only used four. As for that laryngitis week? It never happened.

Inspired by her sudden shift towards better health, Hyrman teamed up with other researchers for her masters' thesis to determine whether teacher wellness was higher in year-round or traditional schools. Their study was limited. They surveyed 20 Spul'u'kwuks teachers and reviewed their sick-day data over the past four years. They found the teachers used an average of 1.2 fewer sick days than their traditional calendar counterparts. Hyrman believes it's a byproduct of the regular, sustained breaks the calendar provides. She thinks the government could benefit financially from this trend.

A sick day costs the province about $600, says Hyrman. The province pays $300 for the sick teacher and another $300 for the supply. Two sick days cost the province an extra $600 in supply salary. "If we were to look at the province," says Hyrman. "That's a lot of money."

With about 31,000 full-time teachers in the province, a balanced calendar system could yield almost $19 million in savings. Hyrman believes educational assistants, secretaries, and custodians have even higher sick-day averages because they're even more stressed working under the traditional calendar. If you include support staff, that's even more potential savings for the province. "I think there's millions of dollars to be had," she says, "if we can take teachers and all of their assorted adult support staff and give them regular breaks, better breaks."

But there's more to teacher stress than just the calendar, says Charlie Naylor, the senior researcher for the BCTF. In the mid-'90s, when year-round schools were first proposed as the solution to increasing enrollment in the province, the organization commissioned him to research the subject. He ultimately dismissed year-round education as "not worth the hassle."

Now he focuses on gauging workplace stress, and argues that the calendar is only one of many factors affecting teachers. A balanced calendar may alleviate some stress and benefit some teachers physically, he says, but it's not the cure. It won't fix the many other workplace stresses teachers experience. In 2009, he found increased workload and the multiplicity of demands on teachers added to their workplace stress. None of these are related to the school calendar. That doesn't phase Lesley Fetigan. She eagerly admits she would love to teach under the balanced calendar. "If Surrey piloted it," she says, "I would be first in line to go and do it."

It takes a district to change a calendar

As Liam Fetigan nears his elementary school graduation, his parents' debate over the school calendar increases. The Fetigans have always disagreed on the merits of the balanced calendar at Spul'u'kwuks. Their son's graduation will only complicate their situation. He'll be leaving behind his little sister, Emma, who will have another three years until she graduates. During that time, the siblings will be at schools operating on different schedules because there are no balanced calendar high schools in the province, let alone the district.

"This is the whole challenge," says their father, "the inconvenience that it creates for parents. There's no ongoing infrastructure around it with other schools." This leaves the Fetigans in a bind. They can juggle two schedules, transfer Emma to a traditional calendar school, or place both kids in the private system. It's a scheduling dilemma that happens frequently for Spul'u'kwuks families.

This predicament was a point of concern raised by B.C. Teachers Federation president Susan Lambert last week, when the B.C. Ministry of Education changed the School Act to allow school boards across the province to opt for year-round schooling if they wished.

"It seems especially socio-economically deprived children do benefit from programs in the summer, and I think we ought to put programs in place for those children," Lambert said. "[But] I am very concerned about the impact on families of differentiated school calendars within a district.

"I know that there was a balanced calendar at an elementary school in Mission at one time, and parents fell away from the notion once they realized that one sibling had gone to secondary that that sibling was on a different calendar."

The problem with different schedules

For a long time, Spul'u'kwuks has been the sole balanced-calendar school in Richmond. But last year, another elementary school converted to the system. Not many alternative-calendar schools exist in Canada; the total is less than one hundred. Alberta takes the provincial lead, with Calgary offering more than 20 year-round schools. Recently, more and more school boards seem eager to test the alternative schedule. In 2005, the nation's largest year-round school opened its door in Brampton, Ontario. Over the next two years, the Vancouver School Board plans to convert at least three schools as part of a pilot project. Still, that's just two schools in Richmond and not a single high school, making scheduling a difficult problem for some parents and teachers.

Leanne Hers taught at Spul'u'kwuks for eight years -- half of that time on the balanced calendar. She voted to make the switch permanent -- a policy change which needed 100 per cent staff support. Yet, four years after it was implemented, she made the heartbreaking decision to transfer out of the balanced calendar and back into the traditional school year system. All four of her primary-school-aged children attended a traditional calendar school. She found it too difficult to miss the July holidays while her sons stayed at home. It didn't help that she was spending more on childcare than she was making in take-home pay.

After teaching for four years in the balanced calendar, Hers is a firm believer in its benefits, especially for English-language learners. In fact, after all of her children graduate from high school, she will probably return to Spul'u'kwuks -- if given the chance. It was simply juggling two different schedules that made it too difficult for her family. "If you're going to do a balanced calendar," she says, "you need to probably have the entire district on that calendar."

And it's not just difficult for teachers. Parents of multiple kids can find it hard to manage when one child graduates from a balanced-calendar elementary school and is forced to attend a traditional calendar high school. Both of Lesley Fetigan's kids have had friends transfer to different schools when an older sibling graduated. As she speaks, the other parent advisory council mothers nod in agreement; all of their kids, seven between the four mothers, have had this experience. And soon, the Fetigans may be forced to do the same with Emma, who will have to leave her friends behind.

All or nothing?

Charlie Naylor echoes Lambert in seeing this smattering of calendar options as a primary problem with year-round schooling. "The issue gets complicated on the ground if you have two or three schools that are doing this," he explains. "What does that mean in terms of things like district services, specialist support, ESL?" All of these services cost more money if schools operate on different calendars, he says. Financially speaking, it has to be one calendar or the other -- it can't be a combination of both within a single district.

That's the stance Steve Cardwell, the Vancouver School Board's superintendent of schools, is taking. "It would be great if the entire metro region was to go on a balanced calendar," he says. Although Cardwell is only responsible for Vancouver's schools, he frequently meets with the superintendents of neighbouring districts and knows they're all evaluating the benefits of year-round education. He plans to shift all of Vancouver's elementary and secondary schools to match the Spul'u'kwuks balanced calendar over the next five years. "I'm quite optimistic that this could happen," he says. "It's a matter of having the will to move it forward."

After all, enrollment spots at the Richmond school are in high demand. Some families move into the catchment area just to secure a spot.

"We certainly have families outside our neighbourhood who would like to come," says principal Darlene Shandola. "They've heard it's a good school. They're intrigued by the balanced calendar."

This year, she didn't even bother to start a wait list for out-of-catchment prospects. She knew there wouldn't be any room at the already bustling small school.

Tomorrow, last of this three-part series: Does year-round schooling discriminate against families at the lower end of the income scale?  [Tyee]

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