In Los Angeles, the prospect of year-round schools has caused an anguished public outcry. Sixty miles up the coast in Oxnard, year-round schooling is as controversial as Bambi.
An agricultural community of 125,000, 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 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 District Supt. Norman R. Brekke.
Role as a Guru
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 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. "That phasing in was gentle, and we were able to build parental and staff support over time."
Oxnard began studying year-round education in 1974 when it 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.
In the view of Brekke and the school board, the traditional responses to crowding--temporary classrooms, double sessions, more students per class--all had defects. Temporary classrooms give a school more seats but do not stretch its library, cafeteria and other support facilities.
Two Join at Start
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 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, but Oxnard administrators realized that change can be painful. From the beginning, Brekke said, the district knew the faculty was crucial to the acceptance of the unfamiliar idea.
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.
Charlene Scudder, a 20-year classroom veteran who teaches third grade, was one of Marina West's initial year-round teachers. "The district gave us a lot of latitude," Scudder said.
To keep the children in school from becoming envious of the vacationing majority outside on their bikes, Scudder and her colleagues devised the Watermelon Solution. The year-round teachers scheduled festive activities for their classes every few weeks. On one occasion, every class brought in watermelons, which they noisily consumed outside. "All the kids in the neighborhood were drooling," she recalled.
The classes also made their own ice cream, now a summer tradition in the Oxnard schools. "We had kids from the neighborhood standing in our doors, asking if they could come in," Scudder said.
The first year the year-round calendar was offered, about 40% of eligible Oxnard parents opted for it. The percentage grew each year. From the beginning, Scudder said, the program was perceived as a quality one. Many parents viewed it "as a little private school within a public school," she said. "Parents talk. The message traveled real fast: 'Get your children into year-round.' "
Oxnard resident Heidi Jackson was concerned about the schools until her daughter Jennifer, 7, began attending them. (Jennifer is a first-grader at Marina West.)
"I didn't like it at first," said Jackson, who went to traditional schools in Santa Monica. Now she thinks the year-round calendar is probably enhancing her child's education. "You have that break every three months," she said, "and it's just about right. They don't forget their education."