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Does taking a two-month summer break put Canadian students at a disadvantage?

The results of four-year pilot study, obtained by The Globe and Mail, show that children who have only a one-month summer break do better in math, retain more of their lessons and need less time for review.

This study rides on the tail of a 20-year investigation in the U.S. by researchers at Johns Hopkins University that found children from low-income families fell nearly three grade levels behind their higher-income peers.

The culprit? Summer vacation. The learning advantages families can offer their children during non-school months - like lessons, camp and parents who can afford to stay home with their children - are often only available to an elite few from high-income homes.

"Not everybody gets two months off," said Joan Hamilton, principal of Roberta Bondar Public School, referring to parents' work schedules. "Not everyone can take their kids to camp. We should be looking at other options," said Ms. Hamilton, whose Brampton, Ont. school has a year-round curriculum.

Year-round education is more common in Alberta, where there are more than 20 schools offering that option in Calgary alone. But in most other provinces, a two-month summer vacation is the norm. Ontario has a handful of year-long programs, but most are either dual-tracked - year-long students and traditional students attending the same school - or programs at alternative schools for high-needs students.

At Roberta Bondar Public School, full-year education has been the only option for its 900 kindergarten to Grade 8 students since the school opened in 2005. Their school year features the same 194 days and curriculum as regular Ontario schools, but almost half of the two-month summer vacation time on the traditional school calendar is spread throughout the year.

Some results of this continuous learning, according to the pilot study by the Peel District School Board, are higher Grade 7 test scores in math, students who remember significantly more information after breaks and, as a result, teachers who can dive right into new material without having to spend weeks reviewing concepts students would normally forget over the summer. This was found especially beneficial for students learning English as a second language, and students with learning difficulties.

The pilot study compared Roberta Bondar Public School with a traditional calendar control school matched based on student ages, size, location and ethnicity.

Paul Anderson, a teacher at the school, which started its new calendar year on Tuesday, said he's already started teaching his Grade 8 students a new geometry unit. When he used to teach at a traditional school it would take three weeks of review after summer break before his students were ready to conquer new math concepts, he said.

According to province-wide testing scores, Grade 6 students at the year-round school have performed better year-over-year in reading, writing and math, with more students meeting or exceeding the provincial average.

In writing, 90 per cent met or exceeded provincial standards compared to 70 in the board and 67 per cent in the province. For reading, 86 per cent were at or above provincial standard compared to 67 per cent in the province and 69 per cent at the board. And for math, 86 per cent met the standard compared to 63 per cent of students in the province and 62 in the board.

Students who live in the area close to the school have the option to opt out and attend another public school half a kilometre away if they prefer a traditional calendar year.

Tania Younker, spokeswoman for Calgary Catholic School District, which has six year-round schools, said students in the program get the same curriculum and equal instruction time as students in the traditional calendar. But for students who have a hard time getting over the summer gap, year-long learning is a clear advantage.

"It allows us to reduce some of the summer learning loss - the gap between getting back at academics - so they can continue on and keep that consistency and continuity in their education."

And do the kids miss their lazy days of summer? Not at Roberta Bondar Public School.

Amandeep Pabla, 13, says if she weren't in school she'd just be sitting around watching TV, playing computer games and eating junk food. She says she has an advantage over her friends in traditional schools.

"I remember everything I remembered from last year so I can just start where I left off," she said. "It's easier."

And Sacha Malhi, 9, is so eager to take part in a French sing-a-long in his Grade 4 classroom that he's reluctant to leave for an interview until the bell rings for lunch.

He says he doesn't care that he doesn't have a long summer break.

"We get extra holidays throughout the year," he said with a shrug.

Bondar supportive

Roberta Bondar, who became Canada's first female astronaut in 1992, says she completely supports the direction of the school named after her. Especially because the area is heavily populated by new Canadians.

"It gives new Canadians the opportunity to see the value of education on a year-round basis," she said. "I think it's a fantastic start in a country with new ideas."

Ms. Bondar also said the full-year option is good for families.

"It provides an opportunity for the families to know that the school is going to be there and they're not just dumping their kids off into a playground," she said. "They're actually doing stuff to give them a better advantage."

Finally, the scientist globally recognized for her contributions to neurology - said she thinks this style of learning is advantageous for developing young minds.

"When you think of it, we don't have much time in life," she said. "And to be able to make use of the time, to be formally trained … I think it's a phenomenal advantage."

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