Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Year-round school: It's complicated

In theory,  it seems obvious that the summer-off school calendar is ripe for change.  But listening to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials talk about converting one elementary school to a year-round schedule shows how complicated the change can be.

Last year the board voted to turn First Ward Elementary into a year-round school starting in August 2012,  with University Park Elementary,  another arts magnet,  closing and becoming part of First Ward.  After a presentation on what that's going to take,  the board agreed to wait another year.

First Ward is slated to become a four-track year-round school.  That means students and their teachers will have 45 days of class followed by 15 days off  --  and at any given time,  three-quarters of the students and teachers will be in class and one-quarter will be on  "intersession,"  as the breaks have been dubbed.

There will still be schoolwide breaks in the winter and spring,  but no long summer break.  Part of the goal is to avoid the learning loss that often happens over the summer.  Officials said they're looking at options for the kids who are on break to keep learning.  They're hoping uptown arts groups might help.  Still unclear is whether CMS or families would pay for those opportunities.

The staggered  "tracks"  mean a building can hold more students.  But it also means teachers may be living out of boxes;  instead of having one classroom for a full school year,  they'll have it for one quarter,  then move out to let another teacher step in.

Choosing tracks will be part of the 2013 magnet lottery.  There will be measures to keep siblings on the same schedule,  but any year-round schedule will put students out of sync with siblings at other schools and/or parents who work for any other school  (of course, most working parents are used to school calendars that are out of step with their jobs).

The big round of changes that included the University Park/First Ward merger was driven partly by the prospect of a shrinking CMS budget.  But Tyler Ream,  the area superintendent in charge of First Ward,  told the school board that providing year-round busing to a school that takes students from across Mecklenburg County will add an estimated $400,000 to transportation costs.

Ream said so far reaction from First Ward and University Park families has been mixed.  One reason he and other leaders want another year is to hire a principal to lead the transition and try to get families on board with the new venture.

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