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Class Time: Year-Round Schools Help or Hurt Poorer Kids?

The answer isn't fully clear. Yet Vancouver is forging ahead. Last in a series.

Aleksandra Sagan 4 May

Aleksandra Sagan is a freelance writer interested in health and education issues. You can follow her on Twitter at @AleksSagan. Find all three parts of this series here.

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Do summers off give students from more affluent families an advantage? Would a year-round schedule create new hardships for the poor?

Spul'u'kwuks Elementary School was early to embrace an option that B.C.'s Education Ministry last week said it would offer all school boards across the province: year round schooling. In two previous articles in this series we've heard parents and administrators praise some advantages that come from more regular pacing to the flow of learning at Spul'u'kwuks. But is it a good fit for every community?

Nestled in a quaint, low-rise neighbourhood in north-western Richmond, B.C., Spul'u'kwuks serves an affluent demographic. Most kids seem to have at least one stay-at-home parent or full-time nanny. BMWs, Range Rovers and Mercedes frequent the parking lot. The heavily involved parent council can easily raise thousands of dollars to newly equip an aged computer lab. As one father of two children enrolled there puts it, "You need something for the school, somebody writes a cheque."

Which is why he isn't convinced the Spul'u'kwuks calendar should be used as the model for other schools. Aside from scheduling difficulties, he understands the calendar works for his well-off neighbourhood. But he doesn't think it could be applied universally, especially for schools in poorer districts.

The wealthy parents make the calendar work for them, he said. December and April are not Metro Vancouver's best weather, and most parents take that time to jet off with the family to a sunny destination or take a skiing holiday. This is what his own family does. They try to get away for about three weeks of each break and -- even for them -- the cost starts to add up. "Let's not kid ourselves. It's expensive to go away every time," he said. "We've got to do something or those kids are going to go squirrely."

But he knows most parents don't have that luxury, and those are the kids he's worried about. He would prefer to shorten the December and April breaks by a week each and give students a six-week summer instead. That way, the kids can at least enjoy the beautiful summer weather and spend time with their parents outdoors.

That father, who prefers not to share his first name, is husband of Lesley Fetigan. She not only is the mother of two kids at Spul'u'kwuks but also has taught at an inner-city school that runs on the traditional calendar. She doesn't share her husband's worry that eliminating the summer off would be a hardship to poorer children. In fact, she believes year-round schooling would be better for her students from low-income families. "Nine-, 10-week holidays for inner-city kids is terrible," she said. "In my neighbourhood, where kids don't travel -- there's no money to travel -- there's no money for camps. A lot of their parents don't work. So they're sitting with parents that don't provide much for them in the way of entertainment, supervision, safety, even three square meals a day."

Good-bye summer camp

Harry Edwards, the Canadian Camping Association president, believes those kids can find a safe place at summer camp. "Camp is a wonderful tool to place children of all economic climates into a common, level playing field," he said. Lots of camps provide subsidies to campers -- some families pay as little as $10 for a week -- to ensure every child can benefit from what camp has to offer. He said camp builds confidence, self-esteem, social skills and leadership in kids. Year-round schooling could have a devastating effect on camp's ability to provide those skills for children, he said. Smaller camps would be hit the hardest.

Liz Greenway and Jo Dwhytie run one of these smaller camps: the YWCA's Camp Tapawingo for girls. They've been in the business for decades. Greenway, the director, hasn't missed a summer at camp since she was 10 years old.

Camp Tapawingo is situated in Parry Sound, ON. The long wooden dock, enclosing the often full swimming area from the danger of the sailing classes taking place beside it, stretches right onto Georgian Bay. Just over 100 girls fill the camp at any given time. The staff is about two-dozen eager high school and university students. The small size makes one thing certain, said Dwyhtie, the camp's assistant director, people will know who you are. During staff training, counselors are told they will need to know each child’s name, age and cabin. And, on the second night of each new session, Dwyhtie will spend dinner quizzing the staff. This small size makes kids who may be struggling in the real world comfortable enough to make a difference in their lives.

For a long time, camp was the only place Anna Charteris could be happy. When she started coming to camp at eight-years-old, her life was normal. She lived with her mother, father and sister. But, in the next couple of years, everything started to fall apart. Her parents started arguing -- a lot. Before she knew it, they were getting a divorce and she was being shuffled between two houses. When she was 11, during one of these visits to her dad's house, she watched him collapse mid-sentence. His girlfriend dialed 911 and attempted CPR, but he died from the heart attack before the paramedics arrived. She couldn't live with her mother, who Anna learned was an alcoholic. Her family shipped her off to camp for six weeks, unsure what to do with the pre-teen in the fall.

"Being [at camp] for two sessions was kind of nice because I didn't have to think of anything while adults figured out where I was going to go," said Anna. During the next few years, as she moved between family and friends' homes, she used camp as the stable place in her life. She's one of hundreds of kids who find the same comfort in summer camp. Unfortunately, it's these smaller institutions that might not be able to make it if Canadian schools start shifting towards year-round education.

"Some [camps] will survive. Those that are big and can get bigger," said Liz. "But, places like us will be done. We wouldn't... I can't see us being able to survive it." It would be a lot more difficult to fundraise money without being able to sell donors on the concept of helping kids escape the city's summer heat, said Liz. The camp would have to be able to change its model to operate in December, April and August instead of just during the traditional summer. It would be a huge financial burden on a business that barely breaks even -- with all profits going towards camper subsidies. They would have to hire some year-round staff, winterize facilities, and invest in specialty gear for winter sports.

"I've been at this for 32 years now," she said, "and I can't think of a way to justify to my superiors here at the YWCA spending the amount of dollars it would take to make that facility work for year-round stuff and come up with a financial model that makes it work... It just doesn't."

Unions not sold

Last Saturday the Canadian Union of Public Employees resolved to fight any effort to change the B.C. school calendar. Delegates to the union's convention in Victoria passed an emergency motion opposing the BC Liberal government's bill to allow school boards to change the current September-to-June calendar.

"CUPE BC, which represents school-support workers, said the bill is more about saving money than improving the quality of education. A move away from the standard calendar would hurt special-needs students who need stability and consistent care, it said. A non-traditional calendar would also create hardship for parents who need child care," according to an article in the BC Federation of Labour's online publication The Federationist.

The B.C. Teachers Federation, the union representing 41,000 public school teachers across the province, has assigned staff to "review the research" to find out if year-round schooling "is beneficial or not," said the same article.

Vancouver superintendent of schools Steve Cardwell is intent on making it happen. But it will be a gradual process for the Vancouver School Board, resulting in the same scheduling difficulties Spul'u'kwuks parents experience.

That change will start with at least three schools in the next two years. Some schools in the district have already approached Cardwell and expressed their interest in the new calendar. A handful of them have already started consulting with their parent communities. From these, he would like to see five or six convert by Sept. 2013.

Ideally that grouping would include a family of schools: two elementary schools and their local high school, said Cardwell. That would minimize some scheduling conflicts for parents of multiple school-age kids. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to secure a high school for the change. Mostly elementary schools are interested in making the shift, he said. Only some high schools have expressed interest. "I think many schools are just wanting to wait and see and not necessarily be the first to move down this pathway. If they see one or two schools move in this direction and they see this as a positive sign," said Cardwell, "then I'm sure that we would see more schools coming forward."

Reviving the debate

Cardwell understands shifting a whole district will take some time. He'll have to consult with the larger community: parents, teachers and employers who organize their businesses around a longer summer holiday. He may have to renegotiate collective agreements with the employee unions because they determine the lengths of the work days and years. But, he thinks it can happen within five years and doesn't plan to quit his position anytime soon. He believes the change is worth fighting for.

More than a decade ago, BCTF senior researcher Charlie Naylor, after conducting an extensive literature review for his union, deemed that shift Cardwell is pushing for as "not worth the hassle." Now, Naylor feels that there may be some merit to some of these proposals. But, not having looked at the issue extensively in the past 15 years, he, like the BCTF, has yet to commit to a position.

Financially speaking, all schools need to operate on the same system, Naylor said. The only question is: which one?

"We haven't looked at this issue for about the last 15 years because it faded off the landscape," said Naylor. "Maybe we'll have another debate pretty soon."  [Tyee]

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