Children head back to school on year-round calendar in one North Carolina county - could it be coming to your district?

Children head back to school on year-round calendar in one North Carolina county - could it be coming to your district?

While the Fourth of July holiday marks the high point of summer for many US students, it meant something a little different for thousands of kids in North Carolina’s Wake County: the last weekend of summer break.

In 37 middle and elementary schools in the district, home to the city of Raleigh, Monday, July 8, marked the first day of school, part of a year-round schedule that eschews the traditional lengthy summer break in favor of four nine-week quarters, with smaller breaks in between.

“We’re not sure what the year-round is going to bring, but we’re excited," one district parent, whose child is entering year-round schooling for the first time, told local news station ABC 11.

The district has spent decades experimenting with year-round calendars and is still split on where it stands. A majority of students are still on the traditional calendar, and won’t be back in school until August 27.

The divide reflects the larger trend in the US, where districts and states have swung back and forth adopting, then dropping, then re-adopting year-round school plans, most recently during a wave of renewed interest during the pandemic.

Schools first began experimenting with this format in the l960s and ‘70s, in growing communities like Hayward, California, and Valley View, Illinois, which were absorbing high numbers of students whose families were leaving cities in favor of suburban neighborhoods.

Proponents argue that year-round calendars make more efficient use of school resources, and prevent learning loss over long summer breaks.

"We were looking primarily at our summer learning loss from the last few years. So, the research shows students were falling back two to three years in their math and reading," Adrian Bustillos, chief transformation officer of Aldine Independent School District in Texas, told Fox News last year, as his district shifted to a revised calendar.

"When we look at our data, there is essentially no learning loss. There is a slight dip, but nothing compared to years in the past.”

Such policies caught on particularly in high-growth areas like Clark County, home of Las Vegas, whose school population grew by 60 percent, to 160,000 students, between 2000 and 2019, and Wake County, where late 2000s projections assumed the school system would grow by 5,000 students a year.

However, these experiments never quite caught on with the wider country, and only represented about four percent of US schools by 2020, after declining for the previous 20 years.

And the evidence isn’t compelling that year-round calendars really boost educational achievement, Paul T. von Hippel a public policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote last year in Education Next.

“They have been tried and tested for over 50 years, and rigorous research on nearly one thousand public schools in the United States has found that they don’t raise academic achievement,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, they needlessly complicate life for working parents and teachers.”

Still, the pandemic seems to have boosted interest in year-round calendars.

As of last school year, a quarter of the school districts in South Carolina had switched to year-round calendars, while Washington state used some of its pandemic funding to explore shifting to such a system across more than 40 school districts. In Mississippi, meanwhile, nearly a quarter of districts began using such a calendar as of the 2023-2024 school year.

Beyond what some see as a lack of concrete scholarly evidence about the benefits of year-round school calendars, others cite problems such as difficulties finding child care, depriving kids of the chance to get summer jobs, families having children on different calendars, and difficulty having enough time to prepare for standardized tests in their opposition.

And in places like Wake County, at least two middle schools may switch back to a traditional calendar, facing a lack of the kind of student growth once projected for the area.

“Operating multi-track year-round schools at such a low level puts a lot of strain on the district in order to fund the additional positions that are not earned,” Assistant Superintendent Glenn Carrozza told a school board facilities committee in June.

Continued over the issue suggests that, as it has for decades, year-round schools will remain something between a trend and a fixture.

As Katy Rouse, an economist who has studied year-round schools, once told The Wall Street Journal, “Some things like summer vacation are institutionalized. When it’s the way it’s always been, it’s hard to change.”