Schools are testing out year-round calendar, but benefits not guaranteed

A quarter of South Carolina’s 73 traditional public school districts will be following a year-round calendar this academic year.

That’s a dramatic rise from three years ago when virtually no schools operated on this schedule. These 18 school districts hope they will see benefits to academics and well-being from a calendar that offers more breaks throughout the school year.

For decades, American schools have followed the rhythms of the traditional calendar: 180 days of class broken up by holidays here and there, along with a longer winter break, and then a lengthy summer hiatus.

Year-round schooling departs from that schedule. While the phrase “year-round” might conjure images of students in class, well, year-round, it is the same number of school days, just spread out differently. Districts on this modified calendar might have nine weeks of classes followed by a week or two of break time. The time off might include extra help for struggling students. Following the break, all students and staff return to school, and the cycle repeats.

Greenwood School District 50 was an early convert, switching in 2021. Administrators say the first year went well: More students than expected sought extra help during the breaks, and teachers say they feel less stressed. Student test scores have gone up, with the biggest gains in math.

The district’s year-round plans were underway before the pandemic hit. Greenwood officials thought the calendar might improve the Upstate district’s persistently low state test scores. They saw remediation during breaks as a chance to catch students up before they fell farther behind.

Districts have remained loyal to the traditional calendar despite strong evidence that students lose ground each summer, forcing teachers to revisit old material at the start of every school year. But after the unprecedented learning disruptions over the last two years, districts are more open to alternatives as they consider options to help students recover.

As districts try to figure out how to deal with the lost learning, they’re also struggling with worsening teacher shortages and both student and educator burnout. Administrators have started to see the year-round calendar as a solution to those problems.

But there’s the catch. Few magic bullets exist in education. Researchers who study year-round calendars say there is limited proof they drive academic success better than traditional ones.

Any academic benefits are likely to hinge on whether and how well districts use the extra time for remediation during the school year. Schools can’t require attendance, so they have to design programs that are enriching and enticing enough to draw in students.

Since the modified calendar has only been in place for one year, Superintendent Steve Glenn hesitates to declare it a complete solution for Greenwood. Still, he is cautiously optimistic and has been telling other school leaders how the schedule is working in his district.

Only time will tell what effect year-round schooling has in Greenwood School District 50 and the other 17 districts. Crafting a modified calendar that significantly benefits students and teachers is a feat many experts say they haven’t seen happen yet.

The Post and Courier