A bill to encourage struggling Michigan schools to convert to a year-round schedule was approved by the House Appropriations Committee last week, and now moves to the full House for consideration. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, is similar to a proposal for year-round schools made by Gov. Rick Snyder in his State of the State address in January. Bridge spoke to Schor about shaking up Michigan’s academic calendar for more schools.
Bridge: Why does Michigan need more year-round schools?
Schor: Michigan has had year-round schools for many years. This bill simply helps at-risk school districts afford to convert a building if desired. Districts have chosen to utilize year-round schools because many believe that too much of our students’ hard-earned educational progress is lost every year over the summer break. Splitting the summer break up is a way to maintain this progress and make sure the students, parents, teachers, and the state all get the most out of their mutual investment in education.
Bridge: Can’t districts do this one their own? What is the state’s role in encouraging a different school calendar?
Schor: Yes they can. Although some districts in the state have already chosen to move to year-round formats, many at-risk districts lack the resources to make the expensive necessary one-time expenditures needed for year-round instruction on their own. The state’s role is to empower districts to have the choices available to make the best decisions possible for the students they are responsible for. In this case, that means providing an avenue for them to have a year-round school option, with funding support to outfit their buildings (many of which are older) with proper air conditioning, ventilation and other necessities.
Bridge: Why are you focusing your efforts on at-risk districts?
Schor: Students in these schools do not have the same access to educational camps and other resources over the summer that other students have. Our most at-risk students are usually in low-income families where the parents can’t afford educational summer opportunities, or are in communities where these opportunities don’t exist. These students are more likely to be behind at the beginning of the school year, which necessitates re-learning information that was learned in June and also makes it increasingly difficult to catch up as the year progresses. Splitting up the school year with more frequent breaks allows students who are behind more chances to catch up.
Bridge: I can hear kids screaming already. Does your proposal mean students would be in school more?
Schor: Not at all, there will still only be 180 days mandated by the state. Year-round school means longer spring and winter breaks, and more breaks, allocated from summer break. As an example, when I told my 9 year old son it would be year-round, he was opposed. When I told him it could be a 4 week summer instead of an 8 week summer and 4 other full weeks off throughout the year, he said that would be fine. Children and teachers like the down time to recharge throughout the year, which assists in their learning and leaves less time for the students to forget material and fall behind.
Bridge: Would such a move be difficult to implement with current teacher contracts?
Schor: No. The bill has an April 1st application date and a May 1st date for grants to be issued. This will allow time for schools and teachers to amend contracts (which are usually up July 1st or so). The biggest issue is for teachers who use the extended summer breaks for professional development (like getting extra degrees). This can be built into the contract, just as it is now. The schedule is a completely local decision. Most teachers are generally very supportive of this type of schedule, as it doesn’t affect the work load or their pay, and it provides them more frequent breaks. Many teachers work “Summer School” type programs for supplemental income, but many year-round schools replace those with remedial courses during break periods.
Bridge: Your bill would provide $2 million to help schools upgrade facilities for summer months, probably by adding air conditioning. Two million isn’t going to go far. Would districts pay part of the tab too?
Schor: It’s possible. While I originally had $10 million in the budget, the Governor was willing to recommend $2 million for the current year. My hope is that these dollars allow for 4 or 5 schools to receive funding now, and more dollars are budgeted for future years. I expect many schools to apply in the first year, and I hope that the schools that don’t receive dollars during the first round of funding will be able to get it in future years. Additionally, the bill has a cap of $750,000 per school. If the cost is more than that, the school district may have to pay the rest.
Bridge: What’s been the reaction to this proposal by parents, teachers, and principals?
Schor: I have heard mostly support. Teachers love it because they will have refreshed students and won’t have to re-teach information. Parents love it because it will better the educational experience of their children. There is ample time for vacations throughout the year, and now this time is also available in low travel cost seasons instead of summer and holiday seasons, when gas and air travel gets expensive. A few teachers and parents have objected (due to schedule conflicts if there are multiple children, summer obligations, etc.) and I have informed them that they can choose not to teach or enroll their children in that school. If Lansing implements this in one of their PK-3 schools and a teacher doesn’t want to be part of it or a parent doesn’t want their child to attend, there would still be 11 other PK-3 schools that they could send their child to. This legislation simply creates an option for school districts, parents, and teachers.
Bridge: Standardized tests show that Michigan’s students are falling behind students in other states. Do you see combatting summer learning loss as a way to turn that around?
Schor: I see combatting summer learning loss as a way to ensure that our children receive the full 180 days of education that the law requires (minimum, not including snow days). Losing a month or two is one factor that contributes to our children being behind other states. But it is only one factor. Combatting summer learning loss alone will not be the one solution that we need to turn around our education system. We need to create many solutions to the problems that we have. But this is surely one way to help our at-risk, priority, and focus schools and children.