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Teacher Mike Cavaletto talks with students from Sir Charles Tupper secondary school in Vancouver, British Columbia December 15, 2011. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail/Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)
Teacher Mike Cavaletto talks with students from Sir Charles Tupper secondary school in Vancouver, British Columbia December 15, 2011. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail/Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

Education

Two-month summer breaks giving way to year round learning Add to ...

Vancouver students may soon have to say goodbye to their two-month summer vacation. Over the next five years, the Vancouver School Board’s superintendent of schools, Steve Cardwell, plans to move the district to a year-round calendar.

“I’m quite optimistic that this could happen,” he said. “And that it’s a matter of having the will to move it forward.”

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Students and teachers will trade the traditional two-month summer vacation for more frequent, shorter breaks. The new schedule will be modelled after Richmond’s Spul’u’kwuks elementary. Since 2004, it has operated on three-month terms followed by one-month vacations in December, April and August.

The Vancouver School District has no balanced calendar schools. Three to six schools will adopt the new schedule by September, 2012, or 2013, Mr. Cardwell said.

But having schools operating on different calendars within a district can cause difficulties for parents and teachers. Spul’u’kwuks is one of two balanced calendar schools in the Richmond School District.

Parents with more than one child in the school often transfer the younger siblings when the oldest enters high school. Leanne Hers, a former Spul’u’kwuks teacher, switched schools because it was a struggle to keep her four sons busy during July while she was at work.

“If you’re going to do a balanced calendar, you need to probably have the entire district on that calendar,” Ms. Hers said.

Co-ordinating district services can also become problematic, said Charlie Naylor, a senior researcher for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. He explored the topic for the organization 10 years ago when B.C. schools first considered the switch to deal with overcrowded facilities.

“What does that mean in terms of things like district services? Specialist support? ESL?” Mr. Naylor said. “What does it mean in terms of transportation?”

A school district should have a standardized calendar, he said. Based on his former research, the switch to a balanced year isn’t worth the hassle.

But Mr. Cardwell said he wants the change as a way to help students perform better academically. The shorter breaks would benefit mainly ESL students, struggling learners and kids from vulnerable populations, he said.

Mr. Naylor disagrees. “I think the benefits have been a bit overstated, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t think there have been very clear, neutral evaluations of single-track schooling systems around.”

Supporters rely heavily on anecdotal evidence and, at Spul’u’kwuks, there’s lots of it. Eleanor McInenly works with the school’s English-language and learning-disabled students. Since the balanced calendar was adopted, both groups have improved, she said.

More than half of the students are enrolled in English as a second language, according to the B.C. Ministry of Education. On the balanced calendar, these students retain more English over the breaks, Ms. McInenly said, meaning she spends less time reviewing and moves straight to building on prior knowledge.

Kayla Lincoln, diagnosed with a cognitive learning disability, started at the school three years ago. Before Spul’u’kwuks, Kayla hated going to school, but now she’s thriving. She doesn’t lose too much knowledge or too many behavioural and social skills over the breaks, said her mother, Diane Lincoln.

“For children specifically with learning disabilities who have a problem holding onto information, it works brilliantly,” Ms. Lincoln said.

For now, the Vancouver School District’s teachers’ job action has stalled any progress on Mr. Cardwell’s plans. Teachers aren’t attending calendar committee meetings, said Debbie Pawluk, the Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association president.

While there’s no concrete proposal yet, there isn’t much opposition, Mr. Cardwell said. A few schools have already expressed interest, and some have even started conferring with parents.

“I would hope to see us achieve at minimum several schools on a balanced calendar.”

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