Howard County's elementary and middle schools could save the county $579,000 annually by going to a year-round schedule and make the transition with just a year of planning time, according to a report to be presented to the county school board tonight.
The report concludes that the scheduling change is a viable option if the county government does not provide enough funds to build the new schools needed to keep pace with growing enrollment.
But the state-funded, 27-page report -- a copy of which was obtained by The Sun -- makes no recommendation about whether the Howard school system should stretch its traditional 10-month school calendar over 12 months.
The board does not plan to act on the report tonight but will set a schedule for public hearings and decisions. A vote on whether to switch to year-round schooling could come as soon as the spring, and the new schedule could be in place by July 1997, should the board decide to go ahead.
The school system has been considering year-round education out of concern that the county government will be unable to provide enough money for the construction of new schools. The 37,500-pupil system is expected to gain 10,500 additional students by 2006. In the next four years alone, six new elementary and three new middle schools will be needed.
But the study is being released amid diminishing enthusiasm for year-round education in Maryland. The idea -- which had been pushed by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer as a less expensive means to deal with school crowding -- has not been embraced by either Gov. Parris N. Glendening or any of the other five Maryland counties that have done their own studies.
"This was a report on 'Can the Howard County school system put together an effective, educationally sound, year-round education program?' -- and the report told me we can," said Susan Cook, the board's chairwoman. "Now we have to decide 'Should we go to year-round education?' or 'Do we need to go to year-round education?' "
Ms. Cook added that she would approve a switch to year-round education only as a final alternative if funding for new school construction was significantly reduced.
But even that position is sure to prompt outrage among many parents.
"We will do anything we can to prevent year-round education in Howard County," said Heather Tepe, president of the county's Coalition Against Year-Round Education.
Under a year-round calendar, students still go to school 180 days a year, but have shorter, more frequent vacations.
The calendar discussed in Howard's study of all-year schooling would be an annual cycle of three 12-week periods of instruction separated by three vacations of three weeks each.
To avoid crowding, some elementary schools would adopt a "multiple-track" schedule that would divide the student body into groups and have one group take vacation while the rest are in school.
All students would share a common three-week summer break and one-week winter break.
If the school board were to approve switching to year-round education, Howard's study envisioned that:
* Only those elementary schools with enrollments greater than 625 pupils would adopt a multiple-track schedule, with students being divided into five groups for staggered attendance.
The report lists 10 schools that would be eligible for such a schedule by 1998. They are Bushy Park, Deep Run, Elkridge, Forest Ridge, Laurel Woods, Rockburn, St. John's Lane, Waterloo, Waverly and Worthington.
* The remaining elementary schools also would switch to year-round calendars.
But all students would be on the same track and take vacation at the same time.
* Middle schools also would adopt year-round calendars in which all students would be on the same track. The study found that the multiple-track schedule would be too expensive for middle schools because at least 10 more teachers would be needed at each school.
* High schools would remain on the 10-month calendar.
More than 90 school officials, parents, teachers and other
community members participated in the yearlong study, which included a simulation of how a year-round calendar would work at a typical elementary school, Centennial Lane.
The report also looked at such issues as child care, air conditioning and family vacations, concluding that year-round education could work if the community were flexible.
For example, the school system could offer relatively inexpensive "intersessions" during the three-week vacations to provide remedial and enrichment instruction and recreation for students, the report says.
Child care during those breaks could be provided by the Columbia Association, Howard County Recreation and Parks, private child care centers and individuals.
Over the next 20 years, year-round education would save the county more than $15.5 million in capital and operating costs, the report found, largely by eliminating the need for four new elementary schools.
However, the report acknowledges that not all costs have been considered, including any additional maintenance and custodial costs.
Even before the report was released, the county coalition opposing year-round schools pledged that it would dispute the study's findings.
"I have not yet seen the contents of the report, but I know that it's possible to present the idea in two very different ways," Ms. Tepe said.
"We don't think it will work in this county, and we know that people don't want it," she added.
Ms. Tepe said the coalition also will work to persuade the school board that a switch to year-round education would not improve instruction or learning.
Year-round education has never had much local support. A December 1993 survey, conducted on behalf of the school system, found that only a third of Howard residents who have children in school or who are likely to have children in school favored the idea, even after being given background information.
The idea also does not appear to be catching on elsewhere in Maryland.
Four counties -- Allegany, Calvert, Frederick and Montgomery -- already have studied and rejected the idea, concluding that there are no proven educational benefits and that community opposition is substantial.
A study in Anne Arundel County recently suggested that the school system try a year-round pilot program if a set of schools chooses to volunteer.