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Nine-month school year could become a relic of 20th century

| Monday, Oct. 4, 2010

A consensus is building that the traditional nine-month school year might be a relic of the 20th century that has no place in an increasingly competitive global work force.

President Obama last week reiterated his support for a longer school year, saying the extra month that students in other countries stay in school "makes a difference." Obama made similar comments about the same time last year.

"Our students have a significant amount of time that they are not in a structured learning environment, but we haven't decreased expectations, we've increased them," said Shirley Johnson, a professor in the school of professional studies in education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

It's something that more districts are likely to consider as they investigate ideas to improve student achievement, said Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which serves suburban districts.

"When we talk about year-round school, it makes everyone nervous. But it's not really any more days of school, it's how the year is structured," she said. For example, school could let out on June 30 and students would have time off until the second week of August with longer breaks throughout the year, she said.

"That allows for remediation and less time for regression," Hippert said.

American students spend an average of 6 1/2 hours a day for 180 days in a classroom. Students in Japan and South Korea, who are among the world's elite, attend school for 196 days a year, according to the International Bureau of Education.

Decades of research have consistently determined that over the summer break, most students lose some of what they learned during the school year, particularly in reading, if they don't continue to engage in educational activities, according to the National Summer Learning Association.

Five years ago, Pittsburgh Public Schools opened eight accelerated-learning academies where students go to school 45 minutes longer per day and for eight more days than students in the rest of the district.

"Most of those students have traditionally not done well in school," said Christiana Otuwa, assistant superintendent. "They definitely need more time on task."

Since 2007, the percentage of academy students who scored at or above federal academic standards has been twice that of the rest of the district.

Alexis Ashley of Brighton Heights said the extra time could only be a benefit.

"I like it because it's more education for students," said Ashley, whose daughter attends kindergarten at King K-8 in the North Side. "I feel they don't get enough as it is."

No suburban school district in Allegheny, Westmoreland or Armstrong counties has extended its school calendar. The intermediate units there provide summer instruction, usually one day a week, to special-education students.

"It's not new learning, it's sustaining the skills they've already learned," said Bob Truscello, supervisor of special education for the Armstrong-Indiana Intermediate Unit, which helped about 200 special-needs students last summer.

Sue Rieg, a professor in IUP's professional studies of education department, said special-education students aren't the only ones who need that kind of help.

"I think that would give them the opportunity to go deeper into topics and have a richer experience," she said.

Among the biggest obstacles to a longer school year is money. The average cost per day to operate Pennsylvania's public schools is about $114.4 million, according to 2008 estimates from the Education Commission of the States, which helps states develop educational policy and practices.

"There is no better investment we can make than in our children and their education," Johnson said. "If we hold them in high priority, we can make things work for us and do it financially responsibly."

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