Forgoing summer vacation, parents swamp year-round school

Third grade started early for Carl and Charles Shinn, with the twins grumbling in the back seat as their mother drove them to Croswell-Lexington Community Schools on July 8 when many Michigan students still had Fourth of July fireworks in their eyes.

“They said they weren’t going to go,” said mother Patti Shinn. “But they get bored by the end of summer.”

If they’re like a lot of students, summer causes bigger problems than boredom. Students typically forget some of the math and reading skills they’d developed the previous school year during the summer break. Teachers often have to use September just to bring students back up to the academic level they were at the previous June.

So on July 8, the Shinn twins joined 260 other kids in this rural Sanilac County school district to begin school two months earlier than Michigan’s agrarian school calendar normally calls for.  They’ll be in class the same number days as students on a traditional school calendar, but with three-week breaks spread through the year.

With the state scrambling to find ways to improve academic achievement through teacher evaluations and tenure reform, a few districts are experimenting with a simpler remedy – changing the days kids are in school. Croswell-Lexington is one of about 30 Michigan districts and charter schools opening their classrooms in the summer. It’s an effort to combat “summer learning loss,” which some studies indicate is a major cause of the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students.

Does changing the school calendar help? No one is sure. Michigan doesn’t keep tabs on the number of students in year-round programs, or their academic growth compared to other students.

Croswell-Lexington Superintendent Kevin Miller believes it’s worth a shot. “Our calendar is sadly outdated,” he said “We’ve known for years it was the right thing to do.”

Year-round school programs are growing slowly in Michigan, with a half-dozen additional districts this year asking for waivers allowing school to start before Labor Day.

A typical year-round schedule has students in class for nine weeks, then off three weeks.

“We’re dairy farmers and we can’t get away as much in the summer,” said Patti Shinn.

“Having more time in the winter with the boys is a plus.”

Miller hoped to convince families of 100 students to try the year-round schedule in Croswell-Lexington’s first year. Instead, 262 children – a full third of the district’s elementary students – signed up.

“We’d planned on K-4 (year-round classes),” Miller said. “We had to add fifth and sixth grade by popular demand.” Next year, the district plans to add a year-round option for seventh- and eighth-graders.

In the district, families choose whether to be in the year-round program or to enroll in a traditional schedule, with both programs operating in the same buildings. Students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in math over the summer. The loss is particularly severe for low-income children, who typically don’t have the same summer learning opportunities as those available to their wealthier classmates. Almost two-thirds of students attending Croswell-Lexington qualify for free and reduced lunch.

After one week of the year-round classes, teachers at Croswell-Lexington bragged about leading the most high-achieving classes they’d ever had, said Director of Instruction Julie Western.

“I told them that’s because they’ve only been out of school for three weeks,” Western said.

Horizon Elementary in Holt has operated on a year-round schedule for 20 years. The program is so popular that there is a waiting list to get in, and the district is switching a second elementary to a year-round schedule this fall.

“Our state is ripe for change,” said Horizon Principal David Hornak. “We should be asking, ‘Why are we doing school the way we do?’”

Students in Horizon’s year-round program score better on standardized tests than students in other elementaries in the district, and beat the state average. Hornak attributes student achievement partly to the year-round schedule that eliminates summer learning loss, but also admits that students at Horizon are from higher-income families than the state average.

Research on the academic impact of year-round schools is mixed, and the programs tend to cost more money because of the need to cool the classrooms in the heat of summer.

Because the state doesn’t track academic growth in year-round programs versus classrooms following a traditional calendar, Michigan residents can’t gauge the costs and benefits.

“I hope to see some benchmarks to demonstrate whether it helps academically,” Patti Shinn said. She’s not waiting for those benchmarks though to drive her kids to school this summer.

“It’s a better system,” she said. “It’s what the system should be.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Tue, 08/13/2013 - 12:36pm
Doesn't this violate state law about not starting school before Labor Day in the summer? (something I never agreed with) We all know that was pushed through the legislature because merchants up north were complaining about people cutting vacations short to get back to school. If there are waivers granted to get around the law and more and more districts are doing it then the law becomes more meaningless. I always felt the law was dumb to begin with - high schools start football and sometimes band practice several weeks before school starts anyway and those families are going to be home at that time anyway instead of vacationing up north.
Ron French
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 2:49pm
Schools can get waivers to hold class before Labor Day.
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 2:21pm
Wouldn't money savings should come from the fact that if attending year round school kids should be able to complete their schooling after 10 years instead of 12? How does that not save money? The cynic in me tells me the real appeal to most parents in year round school comes from not having to arrange for child care over the summer rather than any academic benefits!
Ron French
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 2:50pm
Students are actually attending the same number of days of school, just in a different configuration - more breaks, but no long summer break. So it still takes the same number of years to graduate.
Charles Richards
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 3:47pm
"Because the state doesn’t track academic growth in year-round programs versus classrooms following a traditional calendar, Michigan residents can’t gauge the costs and benefits." There is no need for the state to do sych a study concurrently with the kids' education. The students records will always be available for any interested researcher to conduct such a study. It seems to me that other countries have sgnificantly more school days than we do. Has any thought been given to increasing the number of school days? I think it would be particularly helpful in narrowing the achievement gap. Horizon elementary school principal David Hornal was quoted as attributing "student achievement partly to the year-round schedule that eliminates summer learning loss, but also admitting that students at Horizon are from higher-income families than the state average." It would be interesting to disentangle the contribution of each factor. Unfortunately, that is difficult. I recently went to the federal Department of Education's database, and although the tutorial lists data such as education levels and personal income as being available, that is, in fact, not the case.
Wed, 08/14/2013 - 8:06am
Horizon elementary school principal David Hornal was quoted as attributing “student achievement partly to the year-round schedule that eliminates summer learning loss, but also admitting that students at Horizon are from higher-income families than the state average.” Students from higher income families will always have an advantage in student achievement, and the reasons are obvious.
Wed, 08/14/2013 - 4:58pm
***, You say that students from higher income families always have an advantage. It isn't obvious to me. Can you describe what that'those advantages are? I believe if we understand what those advantage might be then we may be able to help others develop those adavantages.
Wed, 08/14/2013 - 5:36pm
Higher income families usually have better educated parents that have the resources and attitude to help their children succeed.
Wed, 08/14/2013 - 10:43pm
***, Do you believe all of those higher income parents came from higher income families? Did you ever wonder how those parents became better educated? Could it be possible that those better educated learn what it took to get thier educations and taught that to their children? It seems that you feel that the education of the parents that contributed to their children's academic success rather then the level of income they earn. If that is the case then maybe a child success is less about the income level than the understanding and value the parents place on education, and on their appreciation of what it takes to get that better education. None of which seems to be limited by income. I am concern that when we start any discussion about learning by talking about parental income we lower the expectations students have of themselves and create a barrier to their learning.
Sat, 08/24/2013 - 8:08am
Sorry, but you jumped to a lot of conclusions over things I never said. Income level of parents and higher academic achievement seem to go hand in hand in this society, the evidence is everywhere and it you want to do some research on this the information it is out there. That doesn't mean that someone of lesser means can't get ahead in life and pass those values onto their children only that higher income people just have so many more advantages in life.
Thu, 12/05/2013 - 12:27pm
Year-round school is not a good thing because kids need their summer so that they can play with their friends not only in school but out of school too.
Jeanet Kulcsar
Mon, 08/04/2014 - 8:46pm
Where can I find the list of the 30 districs and charter schools that have a year round calendar?