Betsy Shilliday was skeptical of the year-round school calendar when her daughter began attending Sycamore Creek Elementary in northwest Raleigh. The family was used to traditional summer breaks.
But Shilliday said she grew to like the year-round schedule, in which students have three weeks off after every nine weeks of class.
“Having those small breaks come just at the right time,” Shilliday said. “It kind of forces us to vacation more with our family.”
On Monday, Shilliday’s daughter, McKenzie, will begin the sixth grade at Pine Hollow Middle, the first new year-round school in Wake County since 2012. It is one of 37 multitrack year-round schools starting a new school year this week in Wake County, North Carolina’s largest school system.
The opening of Pine Hollow renews talk about the future of year-round schools in Wake. Many families have long said they prefer the traditional school calendar, but multitrack year-round schools can accommodate more students.
The Wake County school board hasn’t been eager to open new schools on a year-round schedule. Pine Hollow was the only year-round school financed by the 2013 school construction bonds, and none of the new schools planned for the next building program are expected to be on the year-round calendar.
Meanwhile, four new traditional-calendar schools will open in August.
School board member Bill Fletcher said year-round schools create a balancing act between being financially responsible and making families happy.
“That’s the debate: Is the additional capacity that we gain from multitrack year-round worth the expense and the additional disruptions to families?” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying to determine.”
The $43.3 million Pine Hollow Middle can accommodate 1,280 students, roughly 300 more students than it could serve on a traditional calendar. Since it is a multitrack school, in which four tracks of students rotate in and out, the building will be in use all year.
Traditional-calendar schools aren’t in use during the summer months, which can save the school system money on utility bills.
Fletcher, who serves as chairman of the school board’s facilities committee, said the group has asked school system staff to study whether there are academic benefits to the year-round format. The committee also wants to know whether it’s cheaper to build a new school than to operate a year-round school.
The information is expected to be presented by the end of the year.
Andrew Livengood, principal at Pine Hollow, said he was excited to work at a year-round school. He had led East Millbrook Middle, which is a traditional-calendar school, since 2008.
“I think the advantage for some is (that) kids and teachers get that break throughout the school year,” he said.
During an open house for families on Thursday at Pine Hollow Middle, some parents and students said they like the year-round calendar.
“It seems like there are more breaks,” said Christian Forte, a seventh-grader who opted to leave Leesville Middle, a traditional-calendar school, to attend Pine Hollow.
Christian attended year-round North Forest Pines Elementary, and after a year on the traditional calendar, his family wanted to switch back.
“I just feel like it’s more based on real life,” Christian’s mother, Carla Forte, said of the year-round calendar, adding that few professions have long summer breaks.
But there have been critics. Last year, some families who live in Raleigh’s Brier Creek area said they thought the year-round calendar was being forced on them.
“There are so many summer opportunities, like camp, that year-round school kids can’t attend since school starts in July,” Amy Sparks, whose son attends year-round Brier Creek Elementary, said in an email. “My husband and I wanted our children to have those opportunities.”
Sparks said she did not want her older son to attend Pine Hollow Middle, so she pulled him out of the Wake County school system.
Erica Speaks, a language arts teacher at Pine Hollow, said she understands parents’ frustration, although she prefers the year-round schedule.
Speaks said she used to teach at a traditional-calendar school in South Carolina, and she thinks students retain more information when they have shorter breaks.
“I wouldn’t want someone who told me that I had to be traditional,” she said.
Pine Hollow will enroll students who live in northwest Raleigh and near Wake Forest, filling a need in a part of the county that has limited options for middle school families who want a year-round calendar.
It will pull from four traditional-calendar middle schools in Cary and North Raleigh.
During the open house Thursday, some parents said they are looking forward to a new school year.
Jennifer Worth’s daughter will enter sixth grade at Pine Hollow.
“She’s excited to come to a brand new school,” Worth said.
Some parents with multiple children have complained that it’s a hassle when one child attends a year-round school while another attends a traditional-calendar school. Wake has made it a priority to assign families to elementary and middle schools on the same calendar, Fletcher said.
“We have always attempted to provide calendar alignment for families,” he said.
Worth said she has another daughter at Leesville Middle, on a traditional calendar, and a third at Sycamore Creek, on a year-round calendar.
The schedules are different, she said, but the family makes it work.
“We’ve already been doing it for two years, so it’s not affecting our family in that aspect,” she said.
Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi
New school year starts Monday
▪ For the first time in six years, Wake County schools have increased meal prices. At elementary schools, meals will jump by a quarter to $1.25 for breakfast and $2.25 for lunch. Middle and high school meals will increase to $1.50 for breakfast and $2.50 for lunch. Parents can contribute to their child’s school meals account at www.MySchoolBucks.com or by calling 855-832-5226.
▪ Some school bus routes and stops have changed. For information on routes and schedules, go to wcpss.net/transportation.
▪ The school system is urging motorists to be careful and obey traffic laws Monday. The area around Pine Hollow Middle School, near the intersection of Leesville and Strickland roads in northwest Raleigh, will likely see increased traffic.