For at least a decade, educators have wrung their hands over a simple but profound problem that seemed to defy solution: American children attend public school far fewer days than students in countries that are our economic competitors.
Now Yvonne Chan, the principal of the Vaughn Street 21st Century Learning Center in Pacoima, has found a way around the limits of state funding. Tinkering with the charter school's budget, which had allowed for only 163 teaching days, she found a way to add 37 days to the school year.
Chan's innovative calendar--giving students 20 more days of teaching than the statewide standard this year--was approved Monday by the Los Angeles Board of Education, but only after she agreed to make the extra days of instruction voluntary. In a demonstration of the high degree of parental support that Chan enjoys, parents were unanimous in signing up for the extra days.
"The school is for kids and if the kids need more learning days, the school will put the kids first and keep it open for them as long as we can," Chan said.
Elba Alvarez, who has children in the fifth and third grades at Vaughn Street, said, "The kids are getting a better deal" with the additional instruction, which will include specialized enrichment classes in art, music, science, math and other topics.
"I think it's really fabulous," Alvarez said. "I wish more schools would do it."
Under the new calendar, Vaughn will abandon the year-round, multitrack schedule it has used for 21 years and all of its 1,150 students will attend the school at the same time. That is possible because, starting this week, the school will occupy 14 new classrooms that Chan built with $1 million that she saved from the school's operating budget in 1993, the first year it began operating as a public charter school.
But the Los Angeles Unified School District, which still oversees some aspects of Vaughn's program, has penalized Chan financially for abandoning the year-round schedule and attempting what many parents and educational researchers believe could do much to boost student achievement.
The district took away $166,000 intended to encourage schools to adopt a year-round calendar to relieve overcrowding.
School board member David Tokovsky has questioned the district's decision to take the money from Vaughn. "She tweaks the system like a good manager and we should be encouraging tweaking," he said.
Instead, he said, the district is insisting that Chan be treated like every principal out of an excessive devotion to equality. "Equity and excellence are compatible," Tokovsky said.
State officials said the district was not required to delete the money from Vaughn's budget. "I would like to see her program receive the maximum funding that we can possibly get her, because I think she is doing a wonderful job for her community," said Leroy Small, a state Department of Education consultant. "Chan is probably, in my estimation, one of the 10 most deserving educators that I know."
With the calendar issue, Chan is once again at odds with the district's central office. She has tangled with the district before over how much money her school should receive, purchasing decisions and other issues.
But she has resigned herself to losing the extra year-round money and plans to go ahead anyway. To make up for the lost funds, Chan said, she will rely on other grants and squeeze money out of her general fund budget.
Stewart Gothold, assistant dean of the School of Education at USC, said research has shown "a high correlation between how much time you spend in school and how much you learn."
He said the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, which he helped establish while county superintendent of schools, gives students five periods of regular instruction plus three additional hours of arts classes. Academic achievement there puts the school, which draws a diverse student body from throughout the county, in the top 5% of high schools in the state.
The South Bay Union Elementary School District in Imperial Beach in San Diego County is the only one in the state that has tried a calendar similar to Vaughn's. For the past five years, students there have been given a chance to attend school as many as 45 extra days. About a quarter of the eligible students in the district have taken advantage of the offer, which has included teaching fifth-graders biology by taking them to a nature reserve at a river and allowing sixth-graders to create multimedia presentations.
Officials there have had to scale back the program, but will still offer 210 days of instruction each year. Johanna Vetcher, the district's assistant superintendent for instruction, said the program seems to be boosting academic achievement although it is too soon to call longer semesters a panacea for underachieving schools.
Vaughn kindergarten teacher Roxanne Correa says the new calendar makes sense.
"A lot of these children are deficient in a lot of things that we take for granted, like having parents reading them stories, or even a safe area to play," she said. "If we can enrich their studies with the arts and music . . . I think it will be good for the kids."