CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Year-round school is an emerging issue in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. But in Wake County it s a thriving tradition with a 25-year history, and in neighboring Union County it s an option that a handful of communities have embraced.

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison says he likes the idea of spreading out school breaks, especially for the students most likely to lose academic ground during summer vacation.

He and the school board recently discarded a plan to create one complex version of year-round school at First Ward Elementary. But CMS leaders and private donors are exploring another approach that would add days to the calendar at up to nine west Charlotte schools next year.

I think we should be able to look flexibly at a number of options, Morrison said last week.

Educators who have experience with year-round school say they and the students families love it.

There are definite, distinct advantages when you are a child, says Carmen Miller, principal of Wake s Willow Springs Elementary. She says students don t lose skills on three-week breaks, which means teachers spend less time reviewing.

From a teacher perspective it s fantastic, Miller adds. About the time that you really need a break you get one.

But firsthand accounts and research raise cautions: Changing the calendar is complicated and can be costly. Academic benefits are far from guaranteed, depending mostly on how well teachers use their time and what kind of support at-risk students get during breaks.

Change is very difficult, says John Wall Jr., who led year-round middle and high schools in Raleigh before becoming principal of West Charlotte High this summer. We want to make the right change to help kids be successful.

Rubik s cube

Debate over the academic calendar has raged for decades, with alternatives appearing and disappearing across the country. CMS has tested the water a few times with isolated year-round elementary schools. For more than a decade it has had no year-round schools.

Districts like Wake that have embraced year-round school are often driven by crowding. Wake started planning for year-round school in 1987, with the first school converting two years later. Now 50 of 169 schools 40 elementaries and 10 middle schools are on year-round calendars.

They all use a multitrack model, which rotates students and teachers so one group is off while three others fill the classrooms. That s the version that the CMS board approved in 2010 for First Ward, an uptown arts magnet that was slated to merge with University Park Elementary in 2013.

Looking at multitrack calendars, with schedules for each group in bands of primary colors, reminds some people of a Rubik s cube. It s an apt metaphor for the challenge of making all the pieces come together.

Teachers move in and out of classrooms with their students as they cycle through breaks. Because the full student body and faculty are never on at the same time, everything from faculty meetings to student performances to school photos must be done twice. While classroom teachers rotate, principals need to provide year-round staffing for everything else: maintenance, the cafeteria, the library, busing, office staff, and classes such as gym, music and technology.

In his previous job in Reno, Nev., Morrison had 10 multitrack year-round schools. After reviewing the First Ward plan, he concluded it would not be worth the expense and challenge. As staff were preparing to schedule students for next year s shuffle, Morrison and the board pulled the plug.

Not for everyone

Even in Raleigh, not everybody loves year-round school. Officials have faced resistance over the years, from school communities that rejected year-round plans to a 2007 lawsuit by a citizens group trying to block the conversion of more schools.

Louise Lee is among the Wake parents who said no one should be forced to attend year-round school.

Children need a long break time just to wind down, to totally have their work for the year cut off, Lee said. In year-rounds there s not a total down time.

The big drive to expand year-round schools in Wake County came as the district faced an enrollment surge that at its peak added about 7,500 students a year, pushing it past CMS as the state s largest district in 2007. But the recession slowed growth across the state. And that left some of Wake s year-round schools with fewer students than anticipated.

Multitrack schools save money only if they re full, says Tim Simmons of the nonprofit Wake Education Partnership. When they fall below capacity, the added costs of keeping a school open all year outweigh any savings, he said.

Across the country, boom-and-slump enrollment patterns have prodded districts such as Las Vegas to abandon year-round schedules that were created to cope with crowding.

Simpler path

In single-track year-round school, everyone takes the same breaks. Such schools generally start in July, compared with late August for most N.C. public schools, and have two- to three-week breaks in fall, winter and spring.

That s the approach parents and school leaders chose in Union County, when they decided to convert Shiloh Elementary to a year-round calendar in 1995. Since then three elementary schools and one middle school in Monroe have made the same decision.

Those changes were prompted by a desire to avoid summer learning loss, says John Jones Jr., Union s assistant superintendent in charge of academics. He says the schools have seen academic gains, especially among at-risk students, and have been popular with families.

If their children are happy, that s the primary driving factor, he said.

National research on the academic benefits of a year-round calendar has been inconclusive, with some studies finding small gains and others none.

Leaders of Project LIFT, a public-private effort to boost academic success at West Charlotte High and the eight schools that feed into it, have rolled out a proposal for a single-track year-round calendar at some or all of those schools next year. Many students are performing below grade level, and the calendar change is designed to help them catch up.

The LIFT schools have an unusual edge: $55 million in private donations pledged over the next five years. Zone superintendent Denise Watts wants to use some of that to pay for a 200-day calendar, compared with 180 now and 185 for most schools in 2013-14.

Making it work

Extra learning time can make a difference, especially for at-risk students, research shows. But there are two other key components: Effective teaching and good use of the time when students are out of school.

Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment for Transformation) is already investing heavily in recruiting, rewarding and training strong teachers. And Watts is working with faculty and community groups to provide off-time opportunities that could range from tutoring to robotics camp.

In Wake, YMCA branches, child-care centers and other groups that hold summer camps also hold track-out camps for the students who are rotating out of school.

From a family perspective, one of the biggest concerns is the possibility that siblings will have clashing calendars, or that teachers won t have the same breaks as their own children attending other schools. Wake ensures that siblings in elementary and middle schools can be on the same year-round track, reducing those conflicts.

High school poses the biggest challenge to year-round proponents. Sports and other competitions are linked to traditional school calendars, while teens often rely on summer vacation for jobs and/or programs that bolster college applications.

Southeast Raleigh High, where Wall worked before coming to West Charlotte, is Wake s only year-round high school, using a single-track approach. It s a magnet school, with some families attracted by the calendar and others by the leadership and technology programs, Wall said.

Wall says a year-round high school is challenging athletes, for instance, have to practice and compete when they re on break but worthwhile. At a meeting for Project LIFT families to discuss the prospect, he urged them to give it a try.

The biggest concerns that arose at those LIFT meetings focused on high school and clashing family schedules. Watts said she ll spend this month polling parents and faculty, studying the challenges and trying to devise solutions. She ll hold a follow-up community meeting Nov. 27, and bring any year-round proposal for 2013-14 to the school board in December.

The cost is estimated at $4.7 million a year for all nine schools, money that would come from LIFT s private donations. Watts says state leaders are watching to see if the academic benefits justify such spending on a larger scale.

Many teachers and parents at the meetings have urged her to move forward, sounding a common theme.

As Wall put it: In the West Charlotte corridor, we have to do something different.
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