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W.Va. education officials study year-round school

By Cecelia Mason

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Department of Education has formed an internal committee to study whether year-round school would work.

Betty Jordan, executive assistant to the state superintendent, said the group is reviewing literature and research to determine what concerns would be raised if this schedule were implemented.

The group is addressing one frequently expressed complaint by calling the schedule a balanced calendar.

"There's a misnomer that year-round school automatically means that we're going to add more days to the school calendar, and that kids are going to go to school all the time, and that they're [not] going to have any time off," Jordan said.

"We believe that balanced calendar more accurately reflects the work and the direction in that we take our existing 180 days and we create a calendar that really does balance the amount of instructional time and then time when students are in breaks so that it's more evenly distributed throughout the year."

With the current calendar, students are out of school about eight to 10 weeks in the summer. That creates a learning slide where they forget some of what they learned during the previous school year.

Jordan said about 60 percent of West Virginia's children live in poverty and the slide is even bigger for them.

"The data indicate that, for most children of poverty, that they experience a learning slide of about three to four months of progress in mathematics and two to three months in reading," Jordan said.

"What that means is from the time that they finish school in June and then when they re-engage in school in August, September, they have lost about three or four months of learning."

Students at Piedmont Elementary School, in Charleston, are already used to year-round school. Sixteen years ago, Principal Steve Knighton spearheaded the effort to implement the calendar as a way to improve academic achievement. The concept wasn't popular at first with teachers or parents.

"Even some of the teachers said, 'I think this is a great idea for kids, but I have kids that are in public school, they'll be on a different calendar. I don't know if this will work for me,'" Knighton said.

Piedmont parents were also of the same mindset, Knighton said, expressing concerns about having children in other schools without a year-round calendar, or their child's ability to participate in summer activities like Bible school, team sports and camp.

"You know there were all kinds of consternations, all kinds of issues that these parents had that were legitimate," Knighton said. "Well, some became even irate and said it was undermining family values and that it was a communistic plot."

The first year Knighton started year-round school, parents could choose to participate. He says only half the children took part. The second year 80 percent of the parents agreed to the alternate schedule. The third year, Piedmont officially adopted a year-round calendar for all students.

Piedmont starts school in July. Sessions run nine weeks with three-week breaks in between; students have about five to six weeks off in the summer. It's a schedule that Knighton says makes more sense.

"It's crazy -- we're the only country in the world that has a calendar that looks like this, and our public school year -- 180 days -- is dead last," Knighton said. "Western Europe, 210; China, 240; Japan, 230 -- nobody goes as few days as public education as the United States, which just boggles my mind."

Kathy Thomas, Piedmont resource room teacher, sees a big difference in student performance as a result of the balanced calendar.

"I think that the biggest difference is the continuous learning on the part of the year-round calendar," Thomas said. "Our kids have less time to lose the skills that they've learned, so I feel we're teaching without any interruption."

Fifth-grade teacher Kim Landers said the calendar is better from a personal perspective as well.

"I've kind of built my life now around the year-round calendar, and I don't know if I could go back to the traditional calendar. I really don't," Landers said. "My husband and I enjoy those three-week breaks and we get to travel and do things, and it's perfect for me."

Knighton is advising the committee that's exploring the balanced calendar.

Jordan said that in the next few months the department will reach out to educators across the state who are interested with a goal of encouraging more counties to adopt an alternate calendar.


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