David Hornak began his career in Holt, Michigan 29 years ago as a kindergarten teacher in a school that ran straight through from September to June, with traditional breaks in December and around Easter. He recalls starting every year with high energy and high hopes for “changing the world.” But that didn’t last.
“I would fall miserably flat on my face in October, exhausted,” he recalls. “And then I’d limp through to June.”
In his 13th year, Hornak became a principal at a Holt elementary school that had what is commonly referred to as a “year-round” schedule. In his case that meant five to six weeks of learning, followed by one to two weeks off, with a longer break in the middle of summer. The experience was revelatory.
“My colleagues were not fatigued,” says Hornak, who is now superintendent of the Holt School District. “Any time you have an adult who can step back and charge their batteries, they are going to be better educators, and that will have better outcomes.”
Hornak became such an evangelist for year-round schooling that he now serves as the executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education (NAYRE), which means he has been fielding calls all week from folks in Philadelphia in the wake of the mayoral primary victory of Cherelle Parker and in anticipation of schools Superintendent Tony Watlington’s release Thursday of his strategic plan. Both Parker and Watlington have advocated for a pilot in Philadelphia to test year-round schooling — or what Hornak says should more accurately be called “balanced calendar education.”
Balanced calendar education does not mean kids have no summer vacation. The 2 million school children around the country who attend “year-round” school still get summer breaks in the range of six to eight weeks — long enough for family trips, summer camps, hanging out at the pool, and generally recharging in the hottest part of the year. What they don’t have is another several weeks off in which to unlearn the lessons of the previous school year, what educators refer to as the “summer slide.”
“We must have bold plans around the core work of teaching and learning — the hard stuff with the greatest likelihood of changing outcomes for our students and communities.” – former School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez
Even before the pandemic, studies found that students — particularly those from low-income families — forget about a month’s worth of schooling over the summer. That means that teachers spend the first 20 to 40 days reteaching lessons from the previous spring, Hornak says. Students who fall behind in the beginning of the year often must wait until summer enrichment programs to try to catch up, an often insurmountable task. And pandemic online learning put those same students even further behind. In Philadelphia, that has been severe consequences in a District in which only 30 percent of third graders were reading at grade level even before Covid. That statistic alone is reason to seriously consider radical change to the School District, which limped along with incremental progress pre-pandemic, but that every year leaves the most vulnerable children behind.
Watlington presented his five-year strategic plan to the school board on Thursday night, which was the first time the public got a look at how he plans to fulfill his promise to make Philadelphia the “fastest-improving urban school district in the country.” Besides a year-round schooling pilot in up to 10 schools, Watlington’s plan also includes pilots for evidence-based intensive in-school tutoring, swim lessons and teacher retention programs.
It suggests new curricula around financial literacy, math, science and reading — including an expansion of the successful “Science of Reading” program that has dramatically increased literacy rates in other districts. It mentions what seem like very basic goals around safety, communication, project management, coordination with outside groups and better school websites; and also more detailed ideas around increasing the number of Black teachers through work with (Citizen contributor) Sharif El-Mekki’s Center for Black Educator Development. (See a full summary here.)
Ultimately, the plan may be moot after a new mayor takes office next January with the authority to replace the school board with one who might seek a different superintendent. The headline-grabbing idea of year-round schooling, though, may still be on the table under a Mayor Parker, who has said she favors piloting the revised calendar not just as an education issue, but also an “economic development issue.”
But for all Hornak’s evangelism, changing the school calendar won’t fix a system that is poorly managed, and that doesn’t also dramatically rethink how students learn, not just when they learn. Whether Watlington’s plan includes the kind of bold and immediate fixes for a broken system remains to be seen; whether his ideas can get the buy-in, the resources and the skill needed to enact comprehensive change is also still in question.
As former School Reform Commissioner and education consultant Heidi Ramírez says, “We must have bold plans around the core work of teaching and learning — the hard stuff with the greatest likelihood of changing outcomes for our students and communities. The District has a lot of heavy lifting to do and has to have a plan to ensure that it doesn’t use up its limited resources and capacity without making real change in what matters most.”
Here’s what we know about the idea:
Learning loss is real.
Nationwide, Hornak says, schools spend about $21 billion to make up for the learning loss that accrues when students check out all summer, not to mention the cost of learning specialists and special education teachers. Year-round schooling would not make all of that go away. But it would allow for extra school days throughout the year for students who need it.
By law, Pennsylvania public schools must be in session for 180 days a year. But as Hornak points out, some kids need extra help to keep up with their peers. Balanced calendar schools offer “intersessions” during the off weeks, when teachers who opt in are paid extra to preview concepts that will be taught in the coming weeks, or review difficult ideas that already were taught; those weeks can also be used to enhance learning for more advanced students.
“The current model is fail — and keep failing — until June, and we’ll make it up to you in summer,” says Hornak. “But in the meantime, a child’s self-worth keeps struggling and summer school is not the answer.”
Summer is not what summer used to be.
Yes, there is value in letting kids just chill out for a while. But pools in Philadelphia are only open for about six weeks. City-run summer camps maybe go for eight. School District programs are limited in size and scope. Parents work during the day and often struggle to find affordable quality childcare. Low-income students who rely on two free meals a day in school often go hungry in summer. And given the dearth of places to hang out, the lack of jobs — not to mention the increase in violence — summer is not the vacation many kids need.
It can be good for teachers.
Implementing a year-round schooling plan would require negotiating with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, but that might not be as hard as some expect. It would not necessarily require more days teaching, just a different distribution of time. The most common model for balanced calendar schools is 45-15: nine weeks of school followed by three weeks off. During those weeks off, teachers can opt to earn more money by teaching intersession courses, or they can take the time to refresh.
Hornak notes that in Holt, the five-six weeks on/one-two weeks off schedule leaves teachers less burned out, and less inclined to leave, a consistent problem in Philadelphia. They make personal appointments on the off-weeks throughout the year so they miss fewer school days, which cuts down on the need for substitute teachers, of which there is a nationwide shortage.
The buildings are healthier, too, as they are deep-cleaned during off weeks, so throughout the school year instead of just a few times a year.
“I’ve yet to meet an educator that is on a balanced calendar that has chosen to go back to a traditional calendar,” Hornak says.
It may answer the wrong question.
Keeping kids in school for more weeks of the year requires keeping kids in school. But last school year, about half of all Philadelphia school students were chronically absent, defined as 10 or more unexcused missed school days. Another 19 percent dropped out in the 2021-22 school year, according to the District’s own report card. (This was the first full in-person school year after the pandemic, so numbers may be better for this school year.)
Ramírez notes that students are missing school for a variety of reasons, because they or family members are sick, or because they’re being bullied or there has been a shooting in their neighborhood — or because they don’t feel a sense of safety and belonging, or are not academically challenged or engaged at school. If we can’t get kids in seats for the days we already require, what makes us think we can get those most in need of extra days to show up, or that we’ll have a different outcome if they do?
“There’s a lot we can do without spending much more money to pick up another 3 to 4 weeks of school by taking on absenteeism,” says Ramírez, former chief academic officer for Milwaukee Public Schools and (Memphis) Shelby County Schools.
It’s hot — like really, really hot — in some buildings during the summer.
There are fundamental issues that make this idea hard to fathom in Philadelphia, the most obvious of which is the state of school buildings and increasing heat due to climate change. In late August — just days after the start of this school year — some 100 schools were forced to close because temperatures were unsafe inside buildings that lacked air conditioning. At that time, the District said it would take until 2027 to fully air condition all schools. The pilot would have to take place in schools that already have a/c, but it’s hard to see how extending the year further into summer would even be possible anytime soon district-wide.
The effort may not be worth it.
Most importantly, there is not a lot of evidence that shows students learn better or more when they shift their schedules to a balanced calendar. In fact, as The Inquirer’s Kristen Graham noted earlier this week, Philly tried year-round schooling at Grover Washington Middle School from 2000 to 2004. But then-Superintendent Paul Vallas canceled the pilot, citing minimal learning improvements.
“I’ve yet to meet an educator that is on a balanced calendar that has chosen to go back to a traditional calendar.” – David Hornak.
Making Philly the “fastest-improving urban school district in the country” requires a level of innovation, commitment and vision that we have not seen here in decades, if ever. Parker’s education platform — such as it is — focuses on keeping schools open from 7:30am to 6pm, on year-round schooling and on partnering high schoolers with businesses and universities to train and prep them for their post-graduation careers (something we should already be doing). That does not speak to educational transformation, necessarily, if it puts the focus on the wrong things. Ramírez warns of what she refers to as the threat of “Christmas tree reform” — lots of shiny new ornaments on a wobbly, unhealthy tree that looks good, but isn’t stable and doesn’t last.
“I always come back to, What is the problem we are trying to solve?” Ramírez says. “If it’s about increasing time in high-quality instruction, how will this do that? And at what cost?”
Changing schedules means changing hearts and minds of an understandably distrustful population of families, students and staff. And for what? Will keeping kids in school change the way they are taught to read, or prepare them for a robotic future, or help them get well-paying jobs in the neighborhood where they live? Will it ensure they go to schools that are healthy and safe and clean and well-staffed? Will it do the work needed to finally create economic futures that give our children a path out of poverty?
If not, why bother?
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