Johnston County

Johnston starting to doubt year-round calendar

Johnston County school board member Ronald Johnson listens to a presentation on the effectiveness of year-round schooling in the county.
Johnston County school board member Ronald Johnson listens to a presentation on the effectiveness of year-round schooling in the county. jdjackson@newsobserver.com

Long gone are the days of neat rows of desks from kindergarten to graduation. Schools of today have to be tech savvy, have to embrace change and often shake things up.

Johnston County recently took a hard look at two of its alternative programs and thinks one is working and one is not. Since its implementation in 2007, the Spanish-language-immersion program Splash has thrived in the schools it’s been in, school leaders say. On the other side, they have no evidence that the year-round program at two Smithfield elementary schools is raising academic achievement at all.

The county’s single-track year-round program, what the school system calls its enhancement calendar, is in place at West Smithfield and South Smithfield elementary schools. Chief academic officer Eddie Price said that after a study of the program, its benefits might only be in the intangibles.

“If we look solely at student achievement, and if that’s the measure of success, then we are not getting the bang for the buck with this program,” Price said in response to a question from school board chairman Mike Wooten, who wanted to know if year-round calendars were improving student achievement.

West and South Smithfield have had year-round calendars since 2007, but the district’s study looked at the last three years of performance. The two schools were compared to two others with similar demographics in Johnston County, West Smithfield to Selma Elementary and South Smithfield to Wilson’s Mills.

In grade-level proficiency comparisons, all schools reported similar gains in reading, but the year-round schools didn’t match gains in math and science. In year-end testing, the year-round schools either did as well or worse than the comparison schools.

“When you look at reading/math/science proficiency comparison, percentage points separate the four schools or at least the two schools most similar to each other in the comparison,” Price said.

One of the main arguments of year-round schooling is that shorter breaks between grades lead to less knowledge lost over summer vacation. But that simply wasn’t born out in the study, Price said. Some West Smithfield and South Smithfield students also attend a remedial period known as intercession, but Price said the study found no gains there either.

“This is really important, because part of this calendar is predicated around the fact that a shorter summer would allow students to come back with less loss of information,” Price said. “In the study, the end of the year compared to the beginning of the next year, the answer to that is no. These students do not benefit from intersession, those who attend it.”

Half of the study dealt in data and the other in perception. While the data showed no identifiable gains in the year-round calendar, the perception was generally good. In interviews and surveys, students and staff said they liked having breaks spaced throughout the year. The study said no teacher surveyed wished to return to a traditional calendar. Parents, on the other hand, were divided. Some found it hard to squeeze in summer vacations. But everyone seemed to buy into the idea that shorter breaks from learning was a good thing.

“The strengths are that the adults feel it’s a wrap-around service,” Price said. “It provides more of what we can’t measure. That’s a very important point. Also adults feel like it’s great to have breaks in service for the adults and the students.”

Price said operating each year-round school costs about $90,000 more than running a traditional-calendar school.

Splash

On the other side, Price said the Splash program at Selma Elementary, Selma Middle, Cooper Elementary and Polenta Elementary seems to be worth the money. The dual-language program, which teaches students in Spanish one day and English the next, began at Selma Elementary in 2007 with 22 students. Now that school has 20 classes in the program, and only three kindergarteners opted out this year.

Splash costs a little less than $2 million each year between the four schools, but the school system said true costs to the district after reimbursements from the hired company VIF International Education are actually around $270,000.

Data is thin for Cooper and Polenta, because the schools haven’t been in the program very long, but comparisons between dual-language and traditional students show the Splash students routinely outpace their traditional peers on year-end tests. The difference was sometimes twice the proficiency of traditional students, though occasionally traditional students bested the Splash students by a few percentage points. Perhaps the surprise is in math scores, where Selma Elementary has seen higher scores than traditional students in all but one instance – a third-grade class five years ago.

Price said the program isn’t just about teaching two languages but about stimulating different parts of the brain. He pointed to gains outside the classroom as well.

“The program encourages diversity and cultural awareness and builds confidence in the students,” Price said.

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