Year-round school is on the way out in Johnston County, but it’s not dead yet.
At last month’s board of education meeting, an expiration date of the 2018-19 school year passed on a 6-1 vote.
Johnston calls its year-round program the “enhancement calendar,” which is in place at only two schools, South Smithfield Elementary and West Smithfield Elementary. The schools are in session in nine-week increments with breaks for remediation spaced throughout the year.
The end of the program comes down to a poor return on investment, school officials say. At South Smithfield and West Smithfield, the altered calendar costs an additional $180,000 to $200,000 a year, but the school system’s chief academic officer, Eddie Price, said the schools have no clear evidence the program is working.
“For several years the enhancement calendar at two Johnston county schools has gained attention and considerable scrutiny,” Price said. “Nearly 10 years ago the school system looked for alternative means to improve student achievement at South Smithfield and West Smithfield. A single-track year-round calendar was proposed and met with much stakeholder opposition. As the calendar’s impact has been monitored each year, there has been a growing concern that maybe the calendar is not having a great enough impact on student achievement to justify the additional spending.”
Earlier this year, the school system reported three years of data on South Smithfield and West Smithfield, comparing it to two demographically similar schools, Selma Elementary and Wilson’s Mills Elementary. Price said the results were mixed, at times supporting the efforts of a year-round model and in other areas seeming to have no effect at all or even a negative one. The research set out to determine if a year-round model offered better overall achievement and allowed students to retain more information without the distraction of long summer breaks.
“In some areas the enhancement schools may score slightly higher than comparison schools; in other areas, the outcome is the opposite,” Price said.
While the data might not favor year-round classes, parents and teachers of the two schools do. Price said parents and teachers think the program is working and that the calendar was a point of pride at the schools, not a burden. Price said adults pointed to perceived gains in retention, achievement and support for the spaced-out breaks.
“Although achievement data is inconclusive, the adult perception data is not. The adult stakeholders were overwhelmingly in favor of the calendar,” Price said.
The school system, though, sees the program as a failure. Price recommended Johnston end the year-round calendar and allow the schools to consider other programs to take its place. Price said if it were up to him, he would introduce the district’s highly successful Spanish-language-immersion program Splash, which is currently in Selma, Polenta and Cooper elementary schools and has a small contingent of students in Selma Middle.
When school leaders talk about the shortcomings of a year-round model, they typically point to “intersession,” the remedial sessions offered between every nine weeks. The problem, school leaders say, is that intersession is not mandatory and not enough students attend, and because it’s optional, it’s often staffed with retired or substitute teachers instead of the school’s regular staff.
“As with any change, there will always be happiness and discontent,” Price said. “It is obvious the intent of the calendar has not come to fruition.”
Initially the board considered doing away with the year-round calendar starting next school year, but the lone dissenting voice, school board member Ronald Johnson, said the district was moving too quickly. Johnson ultimately didn’t support a later expiration date either, saying he’s heard a lot of support from teachers at the schools and thinks the program should remain in place until it’s proven to be ineffective, not just inconclusive.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to change the calendars for the upcoming school year with only four or five months’ notification,” Johnson said. “We owe it to the teachers who have stuck with this calendar for over seven years. The last thing we need to do is make a quick decision today that will affect approximately 75 teachers and many more families. We committed to this calendar, and the teachers tell me it’s working, and I’m going to support them, and I’m going to continue supporting it until someone can really show me otherwise.”
Johnson referenced a debate in his run for school board last year where he fielded a question asking how he would measure the success of the enhancement calendar. He said he would listen to the teachers.
“I’m keeping my word to them,” Johnson said, later noting the demographics of West Smithfield and South Smithfield, which have high numbers of lower-income families. Johnson said the year-round model helps limit idle time for these students and could help break the cycle of poverty.
School board members in favor of ending the year-round model said they supported the program but couldn’t support higher costs for plateaued results. Board member Peggy Smith said she was one of the district’s main proponents of the model but said poor attendance at intersession means the program isn’t working as intended. As an analogy she shared an anecdote from former Johnston superintendent Jim Causby, who told a story about a dog food company heavily investing in a new product that dogs chose not to eat. Smith suggested something similar is going on with the year-round calendar.
“We’ve offered a great product, and we just didn’t get the takers we thought we were going to get,” Smith said. “I really believe in the program, but I also believe for the program to work, children have to attend, and they’re not attending, not in the numbers that would justify the expenditure.”
After nearly an hour of discussion, the school board decided to wait a year on nixing the calendar, intending for that year to be spent coming up with what comes next for South and West Smithfield. The final vote was 6-1, with Johnson still standing in opposition.