University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Year-Round Schools in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on February 12, 2020 at 10:07 am

Continuous learning schools in the Fayetteville Public School District have drawn media attention as they consider returning to a traditional school calendar. Asbell Elementary and Owl Creek currently operate on continuous calendars but, pending a school board vote later this month, may switch back to traditional calendars for the next school year. Today we explore the history of these alternative school calendars, and the pros and cons for students, teachers, and families.

Continuous learning schools, also known as year-round schools, incorporate several shorter breaks throughout the school year and a shorter break during the summer. Despite the ‘year-round’ title, students in these schools typically attend the same number of school days as students in schools on a traditional calendar. In Fayetteville, all schools start the same week in August, but continuous calendar schools end two weeks later than other schools in June. The continuous learning schools have two week-long breaks that are different from the traditional calendar – one the first week of October and another during April. As parents and the superintendent push for a return to the traditional calendar it is important to consider why year-round calendars came to exist and what they contribute to the educational landscape.

Brief History of Year-Round Schools

First attempted in the 1980s, year-round schools were created to push back on what was considered an antiquated school calendar based on economic, rather than educational, considerations. Although there is some debate, consensus says the traditional school calendar originated as a result of the need for students in rural areas to return to the fields for work during the summer months. Continuous learning calendars may be implemented to reduce over-crowding in schools or to improve student outcomes. Continuous learning schools can alleviate crowding in large schools where multi-track calendars allow different student groups to attend school at different times, alleviating space constraints. Advocates of continuous schooling suggest the shorter, more frequent breaks in learning could reduce learning loss between school years. They cited evidence from studies, which demonstrated that students experience a “summer slide” in which they lose knowledge and skills during the long break in schooling from June to September. This loss is especially pronounced for children from low-income backgrounds.

The increased frequency of breaks on a continuous learning calendar was also thought to provide non-academic benefits for students, teachers, and parents. Student-learning fatigue and teacher burnout could be reduced though the alternative calendar. Families may enjoy taking vacations when fewer families are traveling, and may avoid some childcare expenses if the school offers a no-cost intersession opportunity for students to participate in learning opportunities at the school over the breaks.

As a result of these hypothesized benefits, states around the country have implemented continuous-learning schools at varying scales. Research, however, demonstrates that switching to a year-round calendar has little effect on student achievement and may even be harmful in certain circumstances (McMullen & Rouse, 2012; Graves, 2010). Despite intersession programming designed to provide remediation and enrichment to students, the hoped-for benefit of continuous schooling to student-learning outcomes has proved insubstantial. The benefit to teachers is questionable as well, as some report enjoying the more frequent breaks while others are nostalgic for a longer respite from the demands of the classroom.

Parents who have multiple children of different ages generate the greatest pushback against the continuous learning calendar. Year-round calendars are frequently implemented at the elementary school level as schools serving older students struggle to accommodate extracurricular practice and game schedules on the alternative calendar. Since continuous calendars aren’t offered comprehensively across districts, parents with students in varying grade levels must juggle multiple breaks and calendars that do not align. This negates potential benefits of shorter breaks and can leave families feeling frustrated.

In addition, year-round schools may increase costs for districts due to increased transportation and operational costs associated with longer calendars and the lack of overlap with other schools. Coupled with the lack of evidence that continuous learning benefits academic achievement, a calendar change can be a hard sell when not implemented district-wide.

Year-Round Schools in Arkansas

Arkansas has had year-round schools since 1993 when Texarkana converted to a continuous calendar (Fritts-Scott, 2005). Data from the Arkansas Department of Education dating back to 2004-05 shows a decline in the number of year-round schools across the state since the early 2000s when as many as ten schools in nine different districts operated on continuous calendars. Between 2005 and 2008, Little Rock and Pulaski Special School Districts led the state in the number of alternative-calendar schools, but they have not operated one since the 2007-08 school year.

The mid-2000s saw an increase in the number of year-round schools that operated in Northwest Arkansas districts, but the number is now declining. Rogers and Bentonville each operated two continuous learning schools but have since returned them to a traditional calendar. Bentonville converted its schools to a traditional calendar in 2016 and Rogers switched the one remaining school in 2019-20. Fayetteville is unique as it is the only district in Northwest Arkansas that increased the number of schools offering year-round calendars in the last five years. Happy Hollow became a continuous learning school in 1996, and was joined by Asbell in 2008-09 and Owl Creek in 2014-15.

Asbell and Owl Creek may return to a traditional calendar next year, pending the vote by the school board next week. Attendance issues and low turnout to intersession activities are cited as impetus for the change. Upon investigation however, the average daily attendance of both Happy Hollow and Owl Creek has increased and shows no variation across quarters, and while Asbell’s attendance declined between 2013 and 2016 it has been increasing again since 2017. These changes in attendance rates, however, are likely due to a variety of factors and may not necessarily be due to the year-round calendar. Surveys from Owl Creek and Asbell reflect that 66% of school staff and 50-55% of parents support returning the schools to the traditional calendar.

Some Arkansas schools, however, are switching to a continuous learning calendar. Arkansas Arts Academy, an open-enrollment charter school in Northwest Arkansas, switched to a continuous calendar in 2017-18. In addition, Magazine School District converted both its high school and elementary school to a continuous calendar in the 2018-19 school year. As opposed to the Fayetteville calendar, which has the continuous learning schools ending later, the Magazine school calendar will start two weeks earlier in August and end at the same time as previous years. Magazine will provide an interesting case study for continual schooling in Arkansas since the change was district- wide. Due to the comprehensive nature of the change, the results in terms of attendance, student achievement, and parent and teacher satisfaction will be easier to gauge and might provide more insights into the value of year-round schooling for Arkansas students.

Since the quantifiable effect of continuous schooling is ambiguous at best, it is up to the stakeholders in each district to make decisions about what calendar meets the needs of their students.

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