By ERICKA MELLON HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Feb. 17, 2010
Some students could see their summer breaks slashed and their academic year stretched as part of the Houston Independent School District's effort to overhaul poor-performing campuses.
The district is designing a pilot program to allow a handful of struggling schools to adopt an extended-year calendar starting this fall. The reform effort — estimated to cost around $500,000 per school — includes two more weeks of class for students. The schools, which have not been chosen, also could see a staff shake-up.
HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said he plans to ask teachers and principals to re-apply to work at the campuses to ensure top-notch instruction during the longer year.
“It's not just about time,” Grier said. “It's not about doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results.”
The alternative calendar, which the school board approved last week, divides the year into quarters, with two-week breaks about every two-and-a-half months. Summer vacation would span three weeks instead of the typical three months.
“As educators, we know that the summer's way too long,” said Peter Heinze, the principal of Briarmeadow, a combined elementary and middle school in HISD.
Losing ground in summer
Research is clear that students, particularly those from low-income families, lose significant ground during the traditional summer break, said Ron Fairchild, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore. Studies are less conclusive about the best way to keep students from regressing, though some data show that a quality six-week program can counteract summer learning loss, he said.
“We definitely need more studies on the issue, but I think it's encouraging to see more districts like Houston that are willing to experiment,” Fairchild said.
Bertie Simmons, the principal of Furr High School, said she would love to adopt the new calendar, even though her campus earned the state's “recognized” academic rating last year. Students lose so much class time — about 22 days — taking mandatory exams during the year, she said, and few have computer access at home during the summer.
“We need more time to teach them,” Simmons said.
Nelly White, who has two sons at Furr, said she strongly supports a longer school year but worries what single or working parents would do with younger children during the scattered two-week breaks. “With the little ones,” she said, “that would be a little difficult because they would have to find adequate child care.”
The popular charter schools KIPP and YES both have an extended school year, though they still follow a more traditional calendar and also lengthen the school day by about two hours.
“If you give a thoughtful approach to what that extra time's going to be used for and you make sure it's with high-performing people, I think it can have a huge impact,” said YES Prep founder Chris Barbic.
Students at YES used to attend for 215 days, but Barbic said the schools have scaled back to 190 — the same as HISD's plan — to keep staff from burning out and because of the expense.
Middle school students at KIPP attend for 220 days, including about two Saturdays a month and 18 days over the summer, according to spokesman Steve Mancini. Younger students have a two-week summer program.
“It gives us a nice bridge (to the next year) and still allows our kids to have that summer time with their families and rest,” said Aaron Brenner, who oversees primary schools for KIPP Houston.
HISD estimates that covering salaries for the longer year would cost as much as $450,000 more for an elementary school and $650,000 for a middle school. High school figures weren't available. The additional bus runs also would be an expense.
Covering the costs
Grier, who acknowledges the extended-year plan is a response to YES and KIPP, said the district might be able to use federal funds to cover some extra costs if it targets low-performing campuses. The state funds districts and charters for only 180 days.
Charles Ballinger, the emeritus executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education, estimates that 400 to 500 schools across the country have an extended year and expects the number to grow, if districts can afford it. Resistance often comes from the recreation and camp industry, particularly in Texas, and from some parents, Ballinger said.
“There's a strong philosophical drive going on at the highest levels — even President Obama has spoken to this once or twice — to have a longer school year so our students are more competitive with students from China, Germany, France, Britain,” Ballinger said.