On a cool, foggy July morning, more than 300 children bustle past a row of blooming sunflowers and into Hall Fletcher Elementary as teachers hand out new pencils, the principal greets them by name, and the UNC Asheville mascot poses with them for photos. But it’s only midsummer: Why are these students filing through the doors about a month before their peers at other city schools?
“Hall Fletcher serves some of the poorest kids in the district,” says Principal Gordon Grant. That, he continues, contributes to a significant achievement gap between the school’s white and minority students.
In both reading and math, white students at Hall Fletcher did better than black students by about 35 percentage points, according to preliminary data from 2013-14 (the year before the experiment began). And both white and black students performed worse than those at other schools in the district.
Meanwhile, the traditional long summer break means students are more likely to forget some of what they learned the previous year. “Kids with lower academic performance are hurt the most,” notes Grant.
Enter year-round school, a strategy that educators hope will improve end-of-grade test scores and counteract the “summer slide.”
A three-year pilot project launched last summer combines the July-to-June (or “balanced”) schedule with a school day that’s 20 minutes longer, optional “bonus learning time” sessions during breaks and special after-school programs co-sponsored by organizations such as the Asheville Symphony and the YMCA.
“All of these combine to create a culture of learning and a structure for success,” says Grant.
At this point, though, says city schools Superintendent Pamela Baldwin, “You don’t have enough data to determine a trend.” And since fewer than 5 percent of U.S. schools have adopted this approach so far, even national statistics on its effectiveness are inconclusive and in short supply.
Still, year-round school is more common in the South than in any other part of the country, according to a 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service. Several Henderson County elementary schools go year-round, and the Wake County system has used a balanced calendar in nearly half its schools for two decades — though that’s partly to help with overcrowding.
“We haven’t yet budged the needle on end-of-year grades,” Grant concedes, but he remains optimistic. Kindergartners who participated in the symphony’s MusicWorks! program last year scored significantly higher in reading than their grade-level expectations, he notes. And Angie Trantham, the school’s literacy interventionist, says, “We’ve definitely seen, from kindergarten to first grade, that students didn’t regress as much as in the past.”
“Overall,” says Grant, “kids like it. Parents like it. Teachers like it.”
By the end of 2015, educators and school board members will have first-year data for the pilot project to help them “determine what our next steps will be,” says Baldwin, who was hired as superintendent last year. “We’ll weigh the decision based on the benefits to our children.”
And if the experiment yields the hoped-for results, other city schools may adopt the same approach.
“Hall Fletcher’s the pilot for our whole district,” notes Baldwin.
Hall Fletcher is in session for nine weeks at a time, with three-week breaks in spring and fall, five weeks in the summer and shorter Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, Grant explains. The extended schedule doesn’t add to the 180 school days that North Carolina requires, though the extra 20 minutes a day does amount to some additional “school day equivalents,” and bonus learning time can tack on up to 10 more days per year. For the most part, though, the year-round schedule simply parcels out the days differently.
Still, the city’s last experiment with this approach proved short-lived. Hall Fletcher adopted a year-round calendar in the mid-1990s but discontinued it due to complaints from parents with kids at two schools on different schedules, lack of buy-in by staff and “no conclusive numbers on student academic performance,” says Charlie Glazener, spokesperson for the Asheville City Schools.
This time, though, there appears to be more support for the program. “We tried to keep the calendars matched as much as possible to accommodate split families,” notes Glazener.
And hard numbers aside, the approach makes intuitive sense, says Gordon. Students often regress academically during the traditional summer recess, he points out. And whether you’re talking sports or learning a new language, you wouldn’t take several months off and expect to see improvement or even hold steady.
Meanwhile, two new classes have been added this year. One helps disadvantaged preschoolers get off to a good start; a sixth-grade class gives Hall Fletcher students the option of staying on the balanced calendar for another year rather than moving on to Asheville Middle School. This, says Grant, can mean better preparation for high school, college and a lifetime of learning. “Hall Fletcher,” he explains, “is trying to remove the barriers to children’s academic success.”
But there’s more to it than simply fiddling with the calendar. “The model matters,” Baldwin emphasizes. Hall Fletcher augments the year-round schedule with “academic support … to help students who need it or need extended learning,” she explains.
Bonus learning time — an optional, extra week of classes that are small and allow more one-on-one time with teachers — is offered during the fall and spring breaks, with academics in the morning and enrichment activities in the afternoon. The extra attention helps many students catch up with their classmates; they also benefit from the field trips and special projects. Besides the BLT sessions, the model includes partnerships with other organizations; the YMCA, for example, provides on-site, after-school programs and also “leads the programming for breaks,” says Glazener.
What parents say
LaVette McDaniel didn’t need convincing about the program’s potential benefits. She attended the school when it went year-round in 1996 and loved the schedule. She now works for the YMCA’s after-school center, and her daughter is a fifth-grader at the school.
“Hall Fletcher is like a family,” says McDaniel. “You always feel welcome.”
At first, her daughter didn’t want to switch to the year-round schedule or attend BLT sessions, especially with many of her friends on the traditional calendar, McDaniel says. “But now she’s excited. All the kids enjoyed the one-on-one with their teachers, and they were building things and going on field trips.”
In addition to their academic studies, last year’s kindergarten students built model houses out of different materials, then used a fan to see whether, like the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” they could blow the houses down (and find out which materials and designs worked best). Older kids designed and built kites and then tested them outside.
“It was pretty cool,” says McDaniel, one of the parents involved in the decision to make the switch. Some people, she remembers, were worried about the logistics and the shortened summer break. “But it’s an opportunity to do different things and gain more knowledge.”
Those advantages, McDaniel believes, will help close the achievement gap — and perhaps ease her daughter’s transition to fifth grade. “I hope she’ll be able retain everything she’s learned.”
Deirdre Gilmer, president of the Hall Fletcher PTO, also praises year-round schooling. “I’ve realized this past year that not only did my son lose less over the summer break but we, as a family, got two solid, three-week breaks during the year,” she notes. “We can really unwind from an intense schedule, and my son has an opportunity to absorb and really use the information he’s learning.”
Trantham, the school’s literacy interventionist, is also the parent of a Hall Fletcher second-grader, and she says there’s still been ample time for vacations and various other experiences. But this year, with her oldest son at middle school and on a different schedule, “It’ll be a challenge for me,” she admits.
Year-round access to extracurricular activities is yet another advantage, says Hall Fletcher parent Angela Howell, adding, “Not every kid can afford summer camp or sports.” Her son, who just started second grade, was on the new schedule last year. He’s excited about the chess club (complete with a human-size set in the lobby), the MusicWorks! program and more.
The whole package, says Howell, “keeps kids involved,” and Hall Fletcher’s new outdoor learning center, slated for completion later this year, will add still more opportunities for learning.
“If this is all done right, you won’t have to worry about leaving any child behind,” she says. “I hope my son will take his education further and keep learning.”
Time to really teach
Hall Fletcher’s staff hopes the new approach will work for every child enrolled in the school. “We serve a higher number of at-risk students, but all of Asheville has a pretty high achievement gap,” notes Trantham, adding, “We really did see the need.”
The year-round model, she says, has enabled her “to do some project-based learning and have time to do extra projects. It’s going back to some of the things that motivated me as a teacher … and it lets the kids lead.”
Betsie Stockslager, science curriculum coach for the city schools, helped shape what students did in last year’s bonus learning time. Kite-flying and model-building, she explains, help kids explore topics and test theories, like engineers. The inquiry-based sessions focus on problem-solving and emphasize the STEM model: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“The feedback on the BLT was good,” says Stockslager. “Students and teachers really enjoyed having the extra time to dig into the work and spend more time on projects,” she reports. And instead of complaining about having to go to school, they got excited about building a solar oven and testing kites, and bragged that the wolf couldn’t blow their house down, she recalls.
“Some of the kids who’d never flown a kite got to run across a field — and learn that ‘If I use this instead of that design, it’ll fly better,’” says Stockslager.
Whole community, whole child
Hall Fletcher’s curriculum, notes Gilmer, emphasizes the “development of the whole child. Most of our students’ challenges are financial: 72 percent of our families live at or below the poverty line. … We’re working hard and creatively to narrow the achievement gap that poverty and privilege, combined, create.”
But making that happen requires support from a wide variety of sources. The Asheville Symphony, the YMCA, the Asheville Design Center, the Asheville City Schools Foundation, UNC Asheville and other entities have all been very involved at Hall Fletcher, says Grant.
A recent $30,000 grant from the foundation, for example, helped pay for the new preschool class. The symphony used a $610,000 gift to fund MusicWorks! And organizations ranging from the Yale Alumni Association of Western North Carolina to the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association have co-sponsored the new outdoor center.
When her son started kindergarten two years ago, says Gilmer, “You could tell there was something incredible being created there, and our family wanted to be a part of building that. I really hope my children gain a love for learning and want to go to school.”
“The key to every successful school,” Grant maintains, is becoming “the centerpiece of its community — getting the community to believe in the school and support it.”
And, less than an hour into the first day of school, he watches as a UNCA representative quizzes the incoming fifth-graders, saying, “Think about what you’re going to be, or want to be.”
“A cancer doctor!” one student replies.
“A video game expert,” says another.
And then comes another question: “What kind of skills will you need?”
Grant nods as the kids ponder that one. Interacting with college representatives, he explains, is one way to get them thinking about their future and what it will take to get there.
“It’s about expectations,” he says. “Poverty doesn’t have to be … a predictor of academic performance.”