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Valley Perspective | SECOND OPINION

Year-Round School Is No Solution

Creative alternatives to overcrowding should be explored at Van Nuys High to preserve a successful system.

September 01, 1996|RACHEL GULLIVER DUNNE | Rachel Gulliver Dunne is a parent member of Van Nuys High School's Shared Decision-Making Council. She is co-director of the Parent Center and was a member of a task force on reconfiguration options

Van Nuys High School is a shining light in a school district often criticized for low student achievement. Van Nuys ranked first in the Los Angeles Unified School District in SAT test results and is rated 15th in the nation for Advanced Placement success. In standardized test scores, Van Nuys compares well with highly rated schools in other districts. The school has swept the Rockwell Computer Science awards and ranked high in Academic Decathlon for years, and last year they were also National Science Bowl champions. Remarkably, more than 90% of all Van Nuys graduates go on to college.

The secret to this success? Dedicated teachers, vibrant programs and a healthy integration of cultures that attract and inspire good students. Three large magnet programs, comprising 40% of the student body, provide an unusually wide range of challenging academic and performing arts classes available to magnet and non-magnet students. About 25% of the non-magnet students take magnet classes, and a similar number of magnet students take non-magnet classes. Magnets are strongly dependent on crossover for program balance: 85% of magnet students take classes in another magnet, many three or four such classes. Most magnet teachers also teach in the regular school. All of the programs at Van Nuys benefit from this. The broad integration of student populations is one of the school's great strengths.

But Van Nuys has a serious problem. With district-mandated reconfiguration redirecting about 800 ninth-graders to Van Nuys this year, the school will be overcrowded. The district's "standard solution," year-round calendar, is detrimental to quality education at Van Nuys because it splits students onto three different calendars, or tracks, and denies the very program access that benefits so many.

Last winter, when year-round scheduling was under consideration, ardent protest was heard from all segments of the school community, each realizing that quality of education would be diminished.

Further, in an informal survey conducted last year, Van Nuys parents emphasized that multitrack, year-round calendars pose real problems for families. In the Van Nuys community, high school students often are the primary source of child care for younger siblings and need to be available when they are out of school. But none of the middle schools in the Van Nuys area are on a year-round schedule. Some elementary schools are, but their vacation times would not match those at Van Nuys.

Even one day without child care is a crisis for working parents. Week after week of this is a major hardship for any family, but especially for parents holding down two or even three jobs just to stay solvent. Does society really want more latchkey children and more young people on the streets without family supervision? Do we really want families that are together in address only?

Under the year-round calendar, there are 17 fewer educational days--more than three weeks of school missed by every student.

Parents of children in the non-magnet program want their children to have more days in school, not fewer, and for a variety of reasons. Non-summer vacations also mean fewer activities available, creating greater potential for young people to drift into trouble. Do we really want fewer school days and fewer constructive activities?

In this era of concern for quality education, family values and personal responsibility, the year-round calendar is a poor solution. The family environment is often as crucial to a child's educational success as is the school environment. As we encourage families to teach personal responsibility and be supportive of their children's education, we must also help them function well as families and not undermine their ability to cope with daily problems.

Van Nuys High School is working to maintain quality education for all students. We need to help it move forward in a way that enhances its strengths--and not tear an exceptional school apart through the blind adoption of standard solutions.

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