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Carla Mosca with her daughters Lexi (L) 13 and Giulianna 10 at the school playground in Calgary, Alberta, June 12, 2011. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail/Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)
Carla Mosca with her daughters Lexi (L) 13 and Giulianna 10 at the school playground in Calgary, Alberta, June 12, 2011. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail/Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)

Time to lead

Does year-round schooling make the grade? Add to ...

Those first few days of summer vacation are bliss. The heat. The empty schedule. The no homework.

But as many kids embark on the biggest break in the school year in the coming weeks, the yawning nine-week gap raises timely questions: Could kids do with less? Do they really need all that time off?

Enter year-round schooling, an educational notion slowly gaining traction all over North America. In Canada, about 100 schools have modified calendars, shrinking the summer holiday to five weeks.

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But it's a tough sell. A long, lazy summer is practically an institution in a country that spends so long in a deep freeze. There are precedents. Many European and Asian countries have much shorter breaks. And most Canadian kids used to get only two weeks off before a number of forces - a lot of them urban, not rural, as many of us might think - gradually expanded the summer stretch to the current length.

Here are five reasons why we might consider shortening the Great Canadian Summer.

Students do better

The learning loss that happens over the summer months has been well-documented since the 1970s. The idea that children retain more of what they learned is perhaps the most popular theory behind year-round schooling - especially for disadvantaged kids.

One well-respected Baltimore study tracked a group of 800 students starting in kindergarten and found that during the summer holidays, learning for all students slides, but disadvantaged students regress more than the average. The researchers found that after five years, the gap continues to widen.

So with less summer vacation, the slide should narrow, goes the thinking. In practice, the effects of a modified school year have proved difficult to measure compared with more traditional schools.

"The differences are usually fairly minor," says Robert Brown, who has studied year-round schooling as a research co-ordinator with the Toronto District School Board. "Sometimes, the schools with more disadvantaged students do better. But slightly."

Paul von Hippel, a research statistician in sociology at Ohio State University found few benefits in a 2007 study of reading and math test scores of children in kindergarten and first grade in 748 public schools and 244 private schools in the U.S.

Still, even those, like Prof. von Hippel, who can't find an overwhelming academic bonus don't consider themselves naysayers. He suggests that to truly see a difference, schools would have to increase the number of instructional days; currently most year-round schools simply redistribute the roughly 190 days of school all children attend.

At the same time, there is good news coming out of some small studies on specific schools. A four-year study was undertaken by the Peel Board of Education on students at Roberta Bondar Public School in Brampton, Ont. The study found that Grade 7 math scores in particular were positively affected when compared with a similar student demographic in a traditional school.

Parents are convinced, though.

"It's a phenomenal concept of not letting kids forget everything they've learned throughout the year," says Calgary mother Carla Mosca whose two daughters, 10 and 13, are in year-round schooling in the Calgary Catholic School Board.

Nine weeks of summer vacation is too long

Even for those who can afford summer camp, travel and time off, nine weeks is a long time to keep younger kids happy. For teens, the summer job market has been contracting across North America, too, while year-round part-time work has been on the rise.

"Most kids today pick up part-time jobs through the year and they're working roughly 12 hours, 20 hours at the most [per week,]rdquo; says Joan Hamilton, the principal of the Roberta Bondar school. "They do that all year round. They may pick up some hours, but summer employment is not what it used to be."

Research has also shown that juvenile crime spikes later in the summer. "The longer kids are out of school, the more trouble they're getting into," Ms. Hamilton says.

Nine weeks of summer school is even longer

Instead of one nine-week summer break, year-round schools divide those weeks up between four short breaks. In year-round schools such as those in the Calgary Catholic School Board, that means extra time off at Easter, Christmas, March break and in the fall.

Summer school sessions are likewise redistributed. Students in year-round schools can sign up for short "intersession programs" during all the breaks. Advocates say they can help students catch up before they fall too far behind.

Many experts in the field say that intersession programs have the potential to help problem students early in the school year.

"You can ask a teacher in October who's at risk of failing. Why do we wait until summer school to tell them they have to repeat a course?" says Bondar's Ms. Hamilton.

One week of March break is too short

Even if you're not swayed by the academic argument, there's no ignoring the lifestyle benefits of being a family who observes the year-round schooling calendar.

For some, seasonal work can mean no time off in the summer.

"Landscape architects or construction workers - lots of families can't take summer vacation and they count on being able to go on the off- season because of their job or because it's more affordable," Ms. Hamilton says.

Indeed. An upside of a shrunken summer is having fleshier breaks throughout the year - many of them during statutory holidays such as Easter, Christmas and, in Ontario, Family Day in February.

"Every three months, we get a break," says Ms. Mosca. "And guess what? On March break everyone's coming home and you're flying out in low season."

Teachers do better

Research has found that year-round schooling results in teachers being absent less, having a better attitude toward work and more reports of "wellness."

"Teachers work extremely hard. It's easy to burn out in this job," Ms. Hamilton says. "With that time for recharge and rejuvenation, they have a chance to reflect on their teaching practices. They come back renewed. It's like that first day of school five times a year."

And they can get extra points for letting summer seep into the teaching day. Ms. Mosca says her youngest will be spending phys. ed class running through sprinklers in August.

"Now they get to bring their bathing suits and be active outside and enjoy the weather."

 

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