When schools abandon the year-round schedule to return to the traditional calendar, its advocates chalk it up to politics -- a case of education officials bowing to pressure from their constituents who are simply resistant to change.
But school officials who've tried the year-round calendar and rejected it say the reason is pragmatism: In a variety of ways, the cost of remaining on the modified calendar outweighed its supposed financial and educational advantages.
The experiences of schools which have discarded the year-round calendar are relevant to Maryland. At the urging of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was concerned about projected school construction needs, Maryland last year awarded grants to Baltimore to try one year-round school and to five other school systems -- Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery, Allegany and Calvert counties -- to study the idea. The studies are proceeding.
Districts that have dropped the year-round calendar say it caused dissension among parents and school officials, disrupted families' lives and created administrative headaches. When financial pressures that usually lead a district to try a year-round calendar are relieved, sticking with it becomes tough to justify.
The multitrack schedule permits a school to accommodate more students without becoming overcrowded. Students are divided into "tracks" and attend classes on a schedule that leaves one track on vacation at all times. The theory is that by increasing the enrollment capacity of facilities, a district avoids having to build new schools.
The downside -- as recently experienced in several districts -- is that it not only costs more to operate schools year round, but districts are merely delaying, not avoiding, building needed schools. The recent return to the traditional calendar by several districts reflects this pattern:
* In New Mexico, the Albuquerque Public School District began placing schools on a year-round schedule in 1989 when it was faced with a burgeoning student population but couldn't afford to build enough schools to meet the demand. School board member Don Patterson, elected on a wave of anti-year-round sentiment, says "It cost us fortunes" to operate schools on the year-round calendar. "Academically these schools were stalemating," he says.
Last year, when taxes were raised and the money crunch eased, the district began returning year-round schools to the traditional calendar.
* After five years with 40 percent of its 12,000 students on a year-round calendar, Utah's Cache County School District returned its schools to the traditional schedule this year after voters' approval of a bond issue to build new schools. Parents' chief objection to the year-round calendar were scheduling problems when they had children on different school calendars and in planning summer activities.
Test scores didn't improve for students on the year-round schedule.
* Washington state's Bethel School District placed its elementary and junior high schools on a year-round multitrack calendar in 1974 when failed bond issues made it impossible for the district to build enough schools to respond to overcrowding. In 1981, voters passed a bond issue, and the schools were returned to the traditional calendar. District officials say transportation and maintenance costs were higher, and classes
had to be canceled on hot days because the schools weren't air-conditioned. Teachers complained of the nuisance of not having their own classrooms. But now once again faced with overcrowding but short of construction money due to a recent failed bond issue, Bethel is considering returning to a multitrack year-round schedule.
* School overcrowding precipitated Los Angeles Unified School District's move to a year-round schedule in 1974. This year, responding to a vote by parents, teachers and administrators, the district returned its 544 single-track schools to the traditional calendar. The reasons cited were that soaring temperatures in the summer months made classrooms unbearably hot; parents had child-care problems during the two-month winter break and complained that children forgot what they'd learned during the previous session; and the added expense of operating the schools year-round in an already cash-stripped district.
* Florida's Marion County, which became the model district that others in Florida studied when considering the year-round issue, abandoned year-round schooling after experimenting with it over the last seven years. The move followed a tough fight led by a concerned parent who questioned school board officials' claims about the financial and academic benefits of year-round education and found they were misleading.
* Clay County, Florida's three-year plan to try the year-round single-track schedule in five schools was aborted after just a year. Parents objected to having children on different schedules, and the board felt it was adversely affecting families by disrupting summer traditions.
* Texas' Deer Park Independent School District recently concluded its two-year experiment with three elementary schools on a single-track year-round calendar. It wanted to see if students would perform better by having more frequent, but shorter, breaks between sessions. According to a district spokesman, the program was a "great success," an assessment based on anecdotal records, not test scores. However, Deer Park doesn't plan to implement a year-round schedule since its enrollment growth is steady and it faces no financial crisis.
While year-round enrollment is up about 14 percent in the past year in U.S. schools -- with 1.65 million students attending year-round schools, according to the National Association for Year-Round Education -- more than four-fifths of those schools are concentrated among just five states. More than half the states that have year-round schools have 10 or fewer schools on the modified calendar.
Many districts on the traditional calendar continue to consider shifting their schools onto a year-round schedule. But there are indications the alternative calendar is losing its luster as the best way to improve education and provide more schools in an era of declining public education funding.
Nowhere may this be more evident than in Florida, which has the third-largest number of students on a year-round calendar -- just over 134,000. Though that reflects a nearly 40 percent increase over last year, three-fourths of the state's year-round-school enrollment is concentrated among just three districts.
In 1993, a state task force appointed to study the savings in construction costs provided by multitrack schools concluded there weren't any. It stated, "the savings in facilities costs deriving from modified calendars is relatively small, and indeed very likely exceeded by increased operational costs."
The next year, the Florida Legislature ceased appropriating incentive funds for districts with multitrack schools operating at least 20 percent above their enrollment capacity.
The biggest blow to Florida's year-round-school expansion may have come with last fall's election of a new education commissioner. His predecessor, Doug Jamerson, had voted to push for all public schools in the state to go year-round; his defeat in last fall's election has been seen, in part, as a rejection of year-round schools.
In the view of Florida's new education commissioner, Frank Brogran, the year-round schedule can work well. "But in some places it's a false hope," says his spokesman, Brewser Brown, explaining, "If you're doing the wrong thing nine months of the year and you do it for three extra months, you're not helping the children.'
Jeanne W. Amend is a free-lance writer in Florida.