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Going to School Year-Round : Gradual Changeover in Oxnard Helps District Build Support

June 02, 1988|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

In Los Angeles, the prospect of year-round education has caused an anguished public outcry. Sixty miles up the coast in Oxnard, year-round schooling is as controversial as Bambi.

A booming agricultural community of 125,000, where strawberries tremble in the ocean breeze and real estate values are soaring along with the sea gulls, Oxnard has had year-round classes for a dozen years. Other school districts, including, ironically, Los Angeles Unified, had year-round schools earlier. But few districts have abandoned universal summer vacations with so little controversy.

In January, 1987, when Oxnard's school board made it the only fully year-round school district in the nation, the result was not a riot but a gratifying silence.

"There was not a word of protest," recalled Supt. Norman R. Brekke, who singles out that moment as the proudest in his 15-year administration.

Oxnard accepted year-round schools with such equanimity that Brekke has become a guru of year-round education, frequently asked to meet with educators and the media to reveal just what Oxnard did right. Brekke, who has come to believe in both the educational and economic benefits of year-round schools, is happy to do so.

"We were able to phase it in gradually," Brekke said when asked to enumerate some of Oxnard's guidelines for success. "That phasing in was gentle, and we were able to build parental and staff support over time.

"We kept the fifth track as long as possible," Brekke said, referring to the traditional calendar. "We figured if the program was any good, it would sell itself and, fortunately for us, it did."

Oxnard began studying year-round education in 1974 when the district realized it would soon have more students than classrooms and little money to build more schools.

Over the last decade, the kindergarten through eighth-grade district has grown from 9,780 to 11,821 students, with the biggest bulge at the kindergarten end. Sixty-eight percent of Oxnard's students are Latino. About one-third of the district's students speak limited English.

In the view of Brekke and the school board, the traditional responses to crowding--temporary classrooms, double sessions, more students per class--all had demonstrable defects. Temporary classrooms, for instance, give a school more seats, but don't stretch its library, cafeteria and other support facilities, which often become overtaxed. The school board suggested that the district look into a relatively new concept: year-round schools.

1976 Experiment

After sending a committee of educators, parents and community representatives to study existing year-round schools in Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere, Oxnard launched its own experiment in July, 1976. Two elementary schools, predominantly Anglo Marina West and Rose Avenue, a barrio school, were the first to keep their doors open all summer.

Oxnard's year-round system has four different tracks, lettered A, B, C and D (some year-round schools, which are not crowded, feature a single track). Students on each track attend school for three three-month blocks per year. Each block is followed by a one-month vacation. At any given time, three tracks are in school and one is on vacation. All children and their teachers have a two-week winter break.

The district tries to assign children to the track requested by their parents.

Proponents of year-round education sometimes dismiss opposition as nothing more than the inertia of tradition. But Oxnard administrators realized that, whatever it is called and however much it is needed, change can be painful. From the beginning, Brekke said, the district knew that the faculty was crucial to the acceptance of the unfamiliar idea.

"We didn't want to start the program with any staff opposition," Brekke said.

Auditorium of Angry Teachers

Not that every teacher instantly embraced the concept. "That first year, I filled the auditorium of a school with angry teachers," Brekke recalled of a board meeting to which staff were invited to learn more about the new year-round system. Despite the tumult and trepidation, not one teacher quit.

A major faculty concern, Brekke said, "was that they wouldn't be able to keep their summer jobs." The administration encouraged the faculty to consider working for the district as substitute teachers during their vacations. Oxnard teachers who fill in for their colleagues are paid more than other substitutes ($85 a day, instead of $60). As a result, Brekke said, "the district had the most competent substitutes that could be found, and the teachers had the option of choosing when and where they wanted to work."

During the early years, participation in the year-round program was voluntary, for teachers as well as for parents and students. Brekke said this was crucial to its success. The district's first year-round teachers made up a small, self-selected group who became credible advocates for the new approach.

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