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Year-Round School: A Promising Fight


Tomorrow, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is expected to announce which counties will receive state funds to develop or implement a year-round school pilot program.

Howard, naturally, is one of the contenders and stands a good chance of being chosen. Seven jurisdictions have applied for the grant; six will be chosen.

Few of the other counties have generated as much attention on this subject as Howard, which the governor himself mentioned as a likely candidate for year-round schools when he first floated the idea at a convention of county leaders last summer.

The willingness of school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey to explore the option -- plus the fact that it is supported by County Executive Charles I. Ecker -- has helped propel the issue in Howard.

Dr. Hickey, in fact, approaches the topic with preternatural visions: "Year-round schools will come eventually, in, say, five years. Some school systems will be forced to go along. Our community is better off if we make some measured movements now."

Those movements are outlined in the county's application; it seeks $50,000 in state funds to be matched with $20,000 in local money.

In a nutshell, the idea is to conduct a feasibility study, establish a public information program and implement a pilot project as early as fiscal year 1996. The likely location for such a pilot is Hammond elementary and middle schools, Dr. Hickey said.

A lot of the state money will go toward information gathering, followed by consultants' recommendations. But make no mistake, Dr. Hickey wants to sell this idea to the county.

"I don't think we're ever going to win over 100 percent," the superintendent said, adding that residents want specific answers to their questions, which school officials don't have at this point. "There's still a significant number out there, if they had additional information, would be willing to at least look at the idea."

He has good reason to feel optimistic. While a survey conducted for the school system by the Columbia-based Mason Dixon Political/Media Research Group showed a majority of residents to be cool to the idea of year-round schools, they warmed to the concept under certain circumstances. Most notably, 45 percent of Columbians liked the idea, 59 percent countywide said they would back it if it were proven to save money and 56 percent said they could get use to a year-round calendar if they were forced to do so.

Interpreting a popularity poll without all the information, however, is useless and school officials know it. It has yet to be seen what sort of prototype calendar the system will develop or the pilot project that would follow. Once people are able to get a fix on what this concept entails, we will know how many soften to the idea and how many retreat to the hills.

There are countless reasons to maintain a healthy skepticism: School officials say year-round schools will save money because fewer new schools will have to be built to accommodate expanding enrollments. But the savings have yet to be weighed against the cost of operating schools year-round, of air-conditioning facilities, of the increases in teacher and staff salaries, and of the possible harm to the state's tourism industry.

There is also the question of whether year-round schools will improve the education of students.

Officials have suggested that youngsters will retain more of what they learn if they get shorter breaks spread throughout the year. It might also be argued that teachers will be hampered by the new schedule because it will require days or weeks of review each time students return from vacation. The unknowns are so numerous that they can not all be handled here.

I believe school officials are mounting a campaign that stands little chance of victory. I also believe that the more people know about year-round schools, the more they will dislike them. Numerous school districts nationwide have tried year-round education only to return to the traditional school calendar.

Considering all that, Dr. Hickey's project may still be a worthy endeavor. At least when school officials go seeking funds to build a new school, they can always point to the ugly alternative.

And that alone may be enough to loosen the purse strings of the miserly.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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