Back to School Already? Year-Round Programs in Full Swing

At 7:30 a.m. on a recent summer morning Carter and Quinn Rutherford were getting ready for school. After just five weeks of summer vacation, the boys were back in class at Mount Vernon Community School, where classes run almost year-round.

Year-round school, also known as a modified calendar, is a rapidly growing trend in the United States. Almost 2 million students currently attend these programs -- a 400 percent increase over the last 12 years.

"They keep learning and they don't have this long process of getting back into the rhythm of school," said the boys' mother, Susan Rutherford.

"By the time the other students hit the day after Labor Day and their first day of school, we are halfway through our first quarter," she said. "We are rolling full force in September. By the end of September we are done with the first quarter."

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Students at Mount Vernon receive an extra 25 days of school a year, comprised of optional intersessions attended by 98 percent of the student body. According to the National Association for Year-Round Education there are roughly 3,000 schools in the United States with year-round programs.

This calendar is more in line with the rest of world. In Japan, for example, students spend 243 days in class, while Americans are only in class for 180.

Teachers at the school say they notice a definite difference.

"I call it the summer hangover," said first-grade teacher Jennifer Fisher, who has taught in both traditional and year-round schools. "You really have to spend so much time getting them back into the frame of mind of school. They're not even thinking about school. ... It was very frustrating.

"With this calendar, they don't have a chance -- it's like those extra five weeks, it prevents the hangover," she said. "You know, so they have five weeks of fun and then it's 'Oh, OK, we're back at it.'"

The Obama administration is pushing for longer days and more of them.

"I'm calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time -- whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it," President Obama said in March.

But critics say that more days in school do not necessarily create smarter students. "A school system that is mediocre at best, doesn't work and is boring to most kids, and not challenging, why would you make it longer?" said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and the author of "Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture."

"Why would you take a bad movie and make it longer? Or a lousy book and make it heavier?" Botstein asked.

Others claim the idea of year-round school may be better suited to certain populations, particularly those in areas where students have fewer opportunities for enrichment during the summer months.

"We can't just say all students would benefit from being in the classroom 220 days," said Shelly Haser, chairwoman of the education department at Marymount University. "We have to maybe start to move away from looking at everything as this equal blanket and start looking at the unique needs of what is available, what do communities need, what do students need."

More time in the classroom also means more money spent. Mount Vernon spends an additional $35,000 a year, or $600 per student.

However, since adopting the modified calendar, Mount Vernon has had mixed results in meeting the No Child Left Behind testing standards and just last year the school failed to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress Standards.

Mount Vernon principal Scott Coleman said he has seen improvement and that the intersessions allow his students to stay ahead.

"For schools like ours, that have populations of students who may not have those rich experiences outside of school, this is an opportunity to level the playing field," he said.

Susan Rutherford said that for her, there is no question that the additional days are benefiting her children.

"They have already covered one quarter of the curriculum before most of the other kids have finished meeting their teachers," she said.