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Trading summertime for snow days

Published 9:45pm Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The havoc wreaked on school calendars by a brutal winter offers renewed reason for Suffolk to at least discuss the merits of year-round schooling.

All the handwringing over how best to make up an abundance of “snow days” this winter would be unnecessary if instructional time were spread over 12 months rather than nine.

The nine-month school calendar, a relic of an agrarian society dependent on manual child labor, has no logical application in 21st-century America. It hinders continuity in learning, causes inefficient use of the school buildings taxpayers paid handsomely to construct and limits the options of administrators in dealing with uncontrollable events like the uncanny series of snowfalls that have intermittently paralyzed Hampton Roads this winter.

A year-round schedule of nine weeks in the classroom, then three weeks off, would offer the same amount of instructional time as the current school calendar but without the inefficiencies created by a long summer break.

Students, especially those in disadvantaged families for which reading and learning are low priorities, forget a lot in three months. Research shows that disadvantaged students lose 27 percent more of their learning gains in the summer months than students from higher-income households. Most students lose about two months of achievement in math skills during the summer, and students from low-income families lose more than two months in reading achievement, while their middle-class peers make slight gains, according to the National Summer Learning Association. Teachers spend far too much time every fall re-teaching the fundamentals.

Year-round schooling provides more time for remediation of learning deficiencies. Tutoring of struggling students is more easily accommodated.

Also, the frequent breaks of year-round schooling continually rejuvenate pupils and teachers, both of whom are subject to burnout in a nine-month schedule.

And absorbing weather interruptions such as those experienced in the winter of 2014 is much easier with a 12-month school calendar.

The odds of significant reform are slim in Virginia. The agricultural interests that created a nine-month school calendar passed off the baton to the tourism industry, which is a powerful lobbying force in Richmond. Amusement parks rely on teen labor during their peak season and thus have persuaded lawmakers to keep intact an antiquated state law forbidding school divisions from beginning classes until after Labor Day.

Perhaps the theme parks are being shortsighted. If families had more frequent breaks from school, “peak season” would be redefined and expanded. Why should a state with pleasant weather nine months of the year shoehorn family vacations into the three hottest?

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.

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