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Year-round schools are a big hit with Utah teachers

Air-conditioned classrooms, far fewer remedial lessons make summers productive

SHARE Year-round schools are a big hit with Utah teachers

Angelique Conger's fourth graders are reading, sandaled feet swaying noiselessly under their desks.

Swimming pools and sunny weather beckon most students in Utah on a hot August day, but the students at Bacchus Elementary in Kearns are still on their best "beginning of school" behavior.

Conger loves this.

Contrary to the assumption that it's harder to teach kids in the summertime, she claims her students are enthusiastic and attentive.

"We get busy and get going," said the teacher.

Like more than 80 schools in Utah, Bacchus is on a year-round schedule.

Most year-round schools use a track system. Students are organized into four groups, and only three attend school at a time, with the fourth being on three weeks of vacation.

School is usually in session from the last week of July until the end of June. Year-round programs in Jordan and Granite districts just started their new school year on July 25.

Since students attend school for 170 days, each school day is lengthened by 19 minutes, so that actual classroom time is the same as on the traditional 180-day calendar.

Utilized first in the 1980s as a way to accommodate overcrowding, many districts are choosing to stay with year-round schedules, even as student populations subside.

Teachers and students alike enjoy the perks of air-conditioned buildings, less crowding and more short vacations instead of one long summer break.

"We can really get started faster because I don't have to remind my kids about what they learned last year," Conger said. "Besides, most kids are bored six weeks into summer anyway. It's so hot, and all they do is watch TV or play (video games)." They might as well be in school, she said.

Of course, some teachers see year-round school as a way to boost their salary.

"There are different arrangements for year-round teachers. Some are allowed to teach on all of the tracks and make more money that way," said Linda Alder, coordinator of curriculum and instruction at the State Office of Education.

"But typically they teach just when the students on their track are on," Alder said.

Many teachers say year-round school saves the time it takes to review materials already taught as students begin each new school year.

Whittier Elementary in Salt Lake City is on single-track year-round to help kids retain information rather than combat overcrowding.

Principal Patti O'Keefe says some teachers do turn down jobs that are year-round, but she can't imagine why. She calls the year-round breaks therapeutic for teachers and a way to reduce burnout because they have the time to retool curriculum three times a year if they choose.

"We really wouldn't ever go back" to a traditional calendar, she said.

Conger said that on a traditional schedule, both teachers and students can lose their edge.

"By mid-March, you're so tired; I just don't see that as much in year-round school," she said.

However, Conger occasionally has to remind herself at the beginning of a new school year that her fourth-graders were third-graders just a few weeks before.

"They haven't had an entire summer to mature," she said.

Sharon Prescott, director of school services in the Granite School District, says there have been no local studies comparing the academic achievement of year-round schools vs. traditional schools.

"But those states that have done such studies say there's not much of a difference," said Prescott.

And year-round schedules haven't proven popular in every case. After five years of giving the schedule a try, two junior high schools in the Granite School District went back to a traditional calendar after parents complained.

Parents are sometimes troubled by how to provide adequate child care in three-week stints.

But in Kearns, local parks and fitness centers advertise special programs to coincide with the track system.

"At any given time, we have 800 to 1,200 students in the Kearns area (who might be off track)," said Royce Gibson, a manager at the Oquirrh Park Fitness Center. "So, three times a week in the afternoon we have swimming classes, aerobics classes and games in the gym. The kids are supervised by counselors who read to them. There's a treat each day, and they do a craft item every week."

The mini-camps cost between $40 and $50.

Bacchus Elementary's principal, Linda Manwill, says most parents eventually learn to schedule vacations and family trips when their children are off-track.

For the most part, she says, there really isn't a big difference between year-round schools and traditional schedules.

"It seems to be a system that works," she said.

E-MAIL: mtitze@desnews.com