For many years the tradition of nine months of school and a long summer break has been the norm in most public schools. But right now, in the middle of summer break, is a good time to ask whether this is the right thing for students.
Earlier this summer I explained that, although things are different, schools do not entirely shut down during June, July and August. Some very worthwhile things happen during these months. But research shows that while some students make good use of this time, there are others who do not benefit from this much time away from the classroom.
A longer school year and/or a different way of scheduling school are being discussed in most education and political circles. There is little doubt that the possibility of legislation addressing this issue — or at least a discussion about it — is very real. Perhaps the middle of summer is a good time for us to think about our feelings about the best school calendar for students.
The topic of year-round school is not new. There are strong views on both sides. Parents who have the capability of taking trips and spending quality time with their students resist change. And, in fact, some research shows that children in these families actually show academic gains from a summer of stimulating experiences. If we believe in the value of cultivating strong families, it is hard to argue against maintaining the traditional break.
It is also true, however, that students in families which, for whatever reason, are not able to travel or provide learning opportunities, fall behind over the summer break. This only widens the achievement gap between students and creates issues for teachers who likely have students from both groups in their classrooms.
In fairness, many educators and parents have recognized the problems and have made attempts to provide learning opportunities for those children who are willing and able to take advantage of them. You may have read about the little libraries that have sprung up across the landscape. Making books of interest available to children is a huge first step in encouraging them to read. Libraries and churches .often provide opportunities for children. Schools may offer summer school classes. Teachers sometimes provide take home programs to keep children learning. This is all wonderful and encouraging.
However, despite all of this effort, there is still evidence of some children falling behind and most teachers would agree that it takes time and effort to re-acclimate students when they return in the fall. If we remain focused on our core mission which is students, how do we resolve the problems? If our goal is to reach all students and prepare them equally, what realistically can we do about making summer a time when they continue to grow, or at least don’t fall behind? What are the obstacles? What are the costs? What are the downsides? Change always comes with a price.
Einstein once said, “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution.” I would agree that the first step in solving any problem is to clearly state it and then to clearly state the goal or outcome you seek.
Summer 2013 is a great time to begin that process. Then we will be prepared to respond when the discussions begin in Lansing or Washington or right here at home. Too often we see leadership starting with answers and looking for a problem to solve. If we are clearly focused on our purpose, we will find solutions.
Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.