State researchers give a qualified endorsement to the idea of year-round classes in crowded schools, saying the unusual schedule stretches resources without hurting students' test scores.
However, school officials considering the switch to year-round classes should line up parents' support and ensure that such community services as child care and afternoon recreation will be available at odd times of year, the lead researcher said.
The study, conducted by the state Department of Education, comes in response to queries from school officials hoping to find a way to handle rising enrollment without building more schools.
"There are things you need to do to make it work," lead researcher Claire Quinlan said in a telephone interview from Sacramento. "We believe that one of the keys to making it work (is) to get the community behind you."
An analysis of California Assessment Test scores for students in the 277 schools on year-round calendars showed most students performed as well as their peers in schools on traditional schedules, Quinlan said.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, students in year-round schools scored significantly lower than students statewide at their grade level. But the researchers blamed that on the fact that the year-round schools in the district tend to be in low-income areas, where students generally score below average regardless of schedule.
"The difference is probably for reasons not related to the academic calendar," Quinlan said. "In the L.A. Unified School District the results probably had to do with the lower socioeconomic level."
Most schools that adopt year-round schedules do so because of severe crowding, and many make the change over the vehement objections of parents. Of the state's 4 million students, 251,000 are on year-round schedules in 43 of the state's 1,028 school districts.
Under the most common plan, which educators have named 45-15, a student body is divided into four groups, each attending classes for 45 days and then getting 15 days off. By staggering the terms so that one group is on vacation at any given time, the school can accept 25% more students without adding classrooms.
Year-round schedules are most common in Southern California, where massive immigration and stagnant education budgets are putting the squeeze on school districts. The schedules most often are implemented in elementary schools, the first affected as the young adults of the baby boom generation begin raising families.
A research team consisting of Quinlan, fellow Department of Education consultant Cathy George and University of California researcher Terry Emmett checked statistics and surveyed teachers and administrators in all year-round schools. The researchers surveyed 100 students and their parents in each of six selected schools to examine their attitudes toward the system.
"People believe that there are other benefits (aside from relieving crowding)," Quinlan said. "Kids don't get bored over the summer; they don't get behind; they don't have to review so much."
Among the drawbacks: Parents complain that it is hard to plan family vacations; maintenance schedules are upset at the same time facilities are getting harder use, and special education may suffer because such specialists as speech therapists are on nine-month contracts.
One type of year-round schedule actually seemed to improve test performance, she said. That's the so-called single-track system, in which the entire student body moves together through a calendar that replaces the traditional three-month summer break with several shorter vacations.