Education

Parents used to fight year-round schools. Now some are lobbying to keep them.

Wake County families fought against year-round schools a decade ago, but some parents are now battling to keep their children on a non-traditional calendar as the school system shifts away from the year-round option.

The debate is now focused on Holly Springs, but the outcome in this suburban town could affect families throughout Wake as the school board decides which calendar to use at specific schools.

Wake’s new student assignment proposal would move hundreds of Holly Springs students from year-round schools into a traditional-calendar school opening next year. Some parents are lobbying for the new school, Buckhorn Creek Elementary, to open on a year-round calendar, but school leaders say it’s too late to make the change.

In response to the heated opposition, the school board has promised to revisit its decision to open all new elementary and middle schools on a traditional calendar. Board members say they want to know whether the strong outcry that emerged years ago against year-round schools still exists.

“For the last five years, we have heard from the community time and time again that we need more traditional-calendar schools west of (N.C.) 55,” school board member Jim Martin said at the Nov. 21 board meeting. “That is why the decision was made to open all schools on the traditional calendar.”

Martin’s comments were met with cries of “where?” “no” and “stop talking” from the audience of passionate year-round school supporters. Parents who have been lobbying to open Buckhorn Creek Elementary on a year-round calendar say the board is using outdated data to make its decision.

“They say people don’t want year-round schools,” Tom Kremer, a Holly Springs year-round parent, said in an interview. “That may have been the case 10 years ago. But at least in southwest Wake and Holly Springs, everyone wants year-round schools, especially for elementary schools.”

Most Wake students attend traditional-calendar schools, which open in late August and end by early June. Students have summer breaks of 10 or more weeks.

In year-round schools, summer vacation is reduced to a month or less, and students have three-week breaks throughout the year. Last school year, 33,746 of Wake’s 159,549 students attended multi-track year-round schools.

Wake County has turned to year-round schools for years to help deal with growth. At multi-track year-round schools, students are split into four groups, or tracks, which can increase a building’s capacity by as much as 33 percent.

As more families continued to move to Wake, the district converted nearly two-dozen traditional-calendar schools and opened all new elementary and middle schools on a year-round calendar from the mid- to late-2000s.

But complaints about “mandatory year-round schools,” as well as a slowdown in growth, led Wake to go from 51 multi-track schools in 2010 to 36 this school year.

With the exception of Pine Hollow Middle School in North Raleigh that opened in 2015, the school board has agreed since 2013 to stick with the traditional calendar for new elementary and middle schools.

Some parents say they dislike year-round schools because the schedule affects traditional summer activities. They also say it can be tough to find childcare during the three-week breaks, and it’s hard when one child attends a year-round school while a sibling attends a traditional-calendar school.

But others say the year-round calendar’s frequent breaks let students recharge and avoid the long summer vacation when children can fall behind academically. Families also say they can take vacations during less-busy travel times.

“It offers us a lot of flexibility in vacations and what we can do as a family,” Heather Balsley, a Holly Spring year-round parent, said in an interview. “I have a child who has some learning issues and he does much better with short breaks.”

As more schools open with a traditional calendar, some year-round students have been forced to change schedules when they are reassigned.

The Holly Springs fight began when student assignment staff proposed filling Buckhorn Creek Elementary with 84 percent of students from two year-round schools: Herbert Akins and Holly Grove.

After a decade of year-round schools, it’s the only calendar that many families at the two schools have known.

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Brannon Balsley, left, helps his son Austin Balsley, 7, with his homework after school at their home in Holly Springs on Nov. 15, 2017. The kids attend Holly Grove Elementary, a year-round school but they're slated to go to Buckhorn Creek Elementary, a new traditional-calendar school opening in 2018. He and other Holly Grove parents are lobbying Wake to open Buckhorn Creek as a year-round school. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

“When we first moved here we didn’t want to go to a year-round school,” said Kremer, the Holly Springs parent. “Once you get into year-round, you love it.”

Some board members say Buckhorn Creek needs to be on a traditional calendar so families have more options if they want to get out of a year-round school. Families assigned to a year-round school can apply to attend a traditional-calendar school, but the request is not guaranteed.

School officials say they don’t have the most recent figures, but for the 2016-17 school year, Wake placed 73.6 percent of applicants at traditional-calendar schools. The acceptance rate varied by school.

“Having also spent time in western Wake, I have had many parents come and say, ‘I want to go to a traditional school but I’ve applied and I can’t get in,’ ” school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner said at the Nov. 21 work session.

Kushner and Martin both said some families assigned to year-round schools are “making it work” but what those families really want is the traditional calendar.

“We’re not hearing from the traditional-calendar people right now, but just because they have accepted the year-round calendar right now doesn’t mean that is the preference,” Martin said.

But several parents at the board meeting challenged board members to show data proving people prefer the traditional calendar in Holly Springs.

“Mr. Martin references requests from 2013 to open traditional-calendar schools,” Amanda Liimatainen said to board members. “I’ve lived in Holly Springs for 13 years and Wake County for 15 years, and I’ve never once been asked what my preference is.

“My neighbors and my community haven’t been asked and I’m certainly not under the impression that a community in another part of Wake County wishes to choose the school schedule for my children, nor do I want to choose the schedule for their children.”

Parents also say it’s shortsighted to open Buckhorn Creek on a traditional calendar because the year-round calendar could help deal with the rapid growth in Holly Springs. Oakview Elementary opened in the town in 2015 on a traditional calendar and is already getting trailers due to overcrowding.

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Kids and parents congregate to play and socialize in a cul-de-sac on Fauvette Lane after school in Holly Springs on Nov. 15, 2017. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

“This population in Holly Springs has grown 10,000 people in the past five to seven years, depending on which statistic you look at,” Brannon Balsley, a parent, told the board. “The community here tonight before you is asking you to vote for Buckhorn Creek to be year-round.”

But the school board told staff to move forward with the traditional calendar for Buckhorn Creek. A final decision is scheduled for Tuesday when the board votes on the 2018-19 student assignment plan.

Buckhorn Creek would open in July instead of August if it were on a year-round calendar. Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore said staff couldn’t guarantee the school would be ready a month early.

Parents have suggested several options, including housing students at Holly Springs High School until Buckhorn Creek is ready in August. They have also mounted a campaign on social media as part of their efforts.

Board member Kathy Hartenstine said parents should be focusing now on the education their children will receive instead of the calendar they will have.

“While they may be unhappy with the calendar, they are going to care a lot about the educational quality that’s in that building,” Hartenstine said. “Life doesn’t always give us what we want in calendar.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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