By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Mixed views are being expressed locally over a national proposal to extend or rearrange the school year so students would lose less ground academically over the summer.
Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee recently announced plans to add 300 hours -- about 40 days -- to the academic calendar in 40 schools beginning this year. About 20,000 students will be affected by this three-year pilot project.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan believes action must be taken because American students have fallen behind their peers worldwide.
"Adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century," Duncan said in an Associated Press report.
Duncan and other proponents of a longer school year say students lose too much knowledge during the summer while enjoying an extended break from their studies. The National Summer Learning Association cites decades of research showing students' test scores are higher in the same subjects at the beginning of the summer than at the end.
"The only ones who don't lose are the upper 10 to 15 percent of the student body," said Charles Ballinger, executive director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round School in San Diego. "Those tend to be gifted, college-bound, they're natural learners who will learn wherever they are."
Sara Cramer, principal of Quincy's Washington Elementary School, believes extending the school year would help many students from low-income backgrounds who don't get many opportunities for academic enrichment during the summer.
"When they're out for the summer -- and they do not take part in the summer school that we offer -- they regress about a quarter," Cramer said. "So if we could add more days to the calendar and rearrange the times that we would take a break, I would be in favor of that."
Cal Lee, interim superintendent of the Quincy School District, said the extended day idea has been discussed nationally for several years. Lee said he would be most comfortable with a "balanced calendar" approach. This would involve keeping the same number of days currently offered in the school calendar (181) but reconfiguring the breaks in the annual schedule.
For instance, students might start the year earlier -- say, in early August -- and attend school for nine weeks before taking a two-week break. Students could then attend nine more weeks before getting another two-week break around Christmas. This would be followed by another nine weeks of school followed by a two-week spring break. The school year would also go a little longer than it does now.
"It's the same amount of days, but instead of an 11-week summer break, it's more like a six- or eight-week break," Lee said. "It's less summer loss but the same amount of days."
Lee likes the idea of staying with the same number of days because it would cost less. Adding more days, he said, would require the district to pay more for employee salaries, transportation, meals, utilities and other expenses.
"A lot of districts have gone to a balanced calendar, and they really love it," Lee said.
He said the biggest advantage is, it helps eliminate the long summer break that can be especially harmful to youths from disadvantaged homes who might not have many opportunities for enriching summer experiences. The number of kids from low-income homes has been increasing in Quincy, with 52.7 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches in 2012.
"They're going to be left to veg," Lee said. "They might watch TV, they might hang out, but they're not reading and doing a lot of nurturing-type activities. That's my concern when you've got a population growing in that way."
Valarie Bordenkircher, president of the Quincy Federation of Teachers, agrees that the extended-year concept might alleviate some of the retention loss during the summer, but she said extending the school year would also be costly for the district.
"It would certainly be an economic impact," Bordenkircher said. "Staff would have to be paid, and you're going to be running buses more days. You're going to be adding to your transportation costs, your cafeteria costs, your staffing costs."
Bordenkircher said she knows some teachers would support an extended school year, while others would not.
"There would probably be some teachers -- particularly those who have school-age children -- who would like to be able to spend time with their own children," she said.
Bordenkircher said the proposal is worthy of further discussion by all stakeholders involved, including teachers.
"I don't think we're opposed to the idea, but we would certainly like to be at the table when it's discussed," she said.
Quincy School Board member Stephanie Erwin sees the extended-year proposal from several perspectives.
As chairman of the board's Finance Committee, Erwin understands how adding more days to the school calendar would cost the district money it doesn't have.
"We're struggling now," she said. "How would we pay the teachers more? They definitely would want more, of course, for working longer."
As a board member and community volunteer who spends time in local schools, Erwin understands the importance of making sure students don't lose ground academically over the summer.
"I could see the benefit of the educational part," she said.
As the mother of four children, Eriwin also realizes how much students -- and many parents -- relish having extended time off during the summer.
"When you've done homework for nine months out of the year, literally we all need a break," she said. "I don't want to get the flashcards out at breakfast anymore."
Ervin also realizes the district would have to address practical concerns if students had to attend classes for a longer period of time in the steamy months of the year.
"Can you imagine riding in those hot buses and the additional cost of transportation?" she said. "Transportation (reimbursement from the state) has already been cut. How could we afford to keep the buses running for a month longer?"
She also wonders whether students would have extended attention spans once the weather gets nice outside.
"I don't know how much the children would actually retain, knowing that they are cooped up in school during the summer when everyone else is out," she said. "You can only push so much, and a wall goes up that says: ‘My brain has turned off. I want to be swimming at Wavering.' "