COLLEGE PARK, GA.
TWO weeks into September and fourth-grader Warren Martin is already thinking about his next vacation. No, he is not daydreaming. His principal says he's a very good student. English is his favorite subject.It's just that Warren, and 350 other students here at College Park Elementary school, started classes last July 22. At the end of next week, they begin a three-week break. This is a year-round school. Students go to class the same 180 days most students do. But they do so in a nontraditional way. Rather than being off for three months in the summer, they have a six-week break. For the rest of the year, they go to school for nine weeks and then have three off. "It's a three-year pilot program here," says Gary Field, the principal at College Park. "We're in such a spotlight it's putting tremendous pressure on us to perform. In the back of our mind we know we've got to show some increases in out test scores." Mr. Field is not alone. That spotlight now shines on more and more schools nationwide. According to the San Diego-based National Association for Year-Round Education, 1.3 million United States students participate in year-round programs in 1,600 public schools and 15 private ones. Los Angeles is the largest school district to have gone to year-round schooling, with some 600,000 students. Utah and Nevada each have 13 percent of their students going year-round. The concept is one that US Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander looks at favorably. "I like the idea of changing the school year," he says. "It's one of those obvious parts of American education that obviously needs to change but won't happen; and whenever that happens you look for wisdom among the people because it is often there." It's also one very important way to get students up to world standards, he says. "All the parents want something more for their children, something better, and we saw that education was the key," says Cheryl Kelly, who has a son at the school. She is president of the Parent-Teachers Association. "We could see our children were starting to go down on test scores in the important subjects," says Ursel Brown, a city councilwoman. Her daughter attends College Park. There are two reasons schools have gone to the year-round calendar, says Charles Ballinger, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education. The first is better facility use, usually driven by overcrowding and a resistance on the part of taxpayers to spend more money building new schools. The second is a clearly established track record of "reduced forgetting." Students, especially younger students from low-income neighborhoods (like College Park) have a higher retention rate for what they learn because there is no single, large break to take them away from school. Schools that have gone to a year-round calendar also notice higher attendance rates among both teachers and students because of more frequent vacations, says Mr. Ballinger. The incentive to keep going for a couple of more weeks is greater because there is a vacation coming. For the last five years, 75 percent of year-round schooling was the result of overcrowding. That figure is down to 60 percent, says Ballinger. He predicts that within five years the majority of schools in session year-round will have done so for academic reasons, not overcrowding. Principal Field took his school into the new schedule for academic reasons. "We were not overcrowded at all," he says early in the morning before he begins greeting each student. "My key area of concern is with reading instruction," he says. "If we get that right in the first and second grade, we have a much better chance of everything else falling into place." It took three years of planning and implementation to bring about the change, he says. The school district sent a teacher, an administrator, and a parent to Salt Lake City to see how a similar year-round attendance program worked and then to report back. Field thought the most difficult hurdle for acceptance of the change would be the two criteria he set. He wanted 80 percent of all faculty and staff, from custodian to cafeteria worker, to agree to the change. He wanted the same 80 percent vote from the families in the district. Faculty and staff were in favor almost unanimously. Teachers who did not want the new calendar were given the option of transferring to other schools. Three out of 35 did so. But the first districtwide vote held in December of 1990 only received 78 percent support. "The first time around it was a relatively new idea," says Ms. Brown. "Parents did not understand the plan," she says. In the aftermath of the press reports about the defeat, a number of parents who voted "no" approached the school and requested a second vote. Last spring 88 percent of the 224 parents who voted approved the year-round plan.