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Summer School

Maxwell Elementary School principal Robert Woodson.
John Johnston

To prevent their schools from being converted into charter schools because of poor performance on the annual Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) exams, principals at Del Pueblo, Maxwell and McGlone elementary schools are trying a new strategy that they hope will help them raise their historically low scores: operating year-round.

By eliminating summer vacation, these three Denver schools will be able to skip the month or more of review that typically follows the break, giving teachers more time to prepare students for the high-stakes tests, which have been making students, parents, teachers and principals across the state anxious.

Governor Bill Owens will evaluate schools on their CSAP scores; in 2003 he plans to convert the "unsatisfactory" ones into charter schools. Based on their past CSAP scores, these schools are prime candidates for conversion: 38 percent of third-graders at Del Pueblo, in west Denver, scored an unsatisfactory in reading last year, compared to an average of 18 percent district-wide and 9 percent statewide; 32 percent of third-graders at Maxwell scored an unsatisfactory, along with 18 percent at McGlone (the last two schools are in the Montbello neighborhood).

"With testing on the front burner, we're looking at everything we can do to improve student achievement," says Maxwell principal Robert Woodson. "This new schedule reduces the review and reduces what the students forget over the summer. We really can't miss a day. This gives us more time before the CSAP."

Ford Elementary School in Montbello is also switching to a year-round schedule, but parents and community members there started pushing for the change five years ago, when the Colorado Department of Education was beginning to develop new achievement standards for public schools. The CSAP test is intended to measure how well students are meeting those standards. "Ford has a record of low achievement," explains principal Delores Knight; 35 percent of third-graders at Ford scored an unsatisfactory in reading on last year's CSAP.

Although the four schools will begin operating on a year-round schedule in July, students won't actually be going to school any longer than the 175 days they do now -- they'll just have their vacations spread more evenly throughout the twelve months. Instead of having the entire summer off, students will get only six weeks off in June and July. They'll resume school at the end of July and won't get another break until the second week of October, when they'll have a two-week vacation; after that, they'll get three weeks off for winter break and three weeks off for spring break.

During the breaks, each of the four schools will pull kids who need extra help back into school for intensive instruction to ensure that no one is falling behind. It will work differently at each school; at Maxwell, for example, students who need extra assistance will attend two to three hours of classes every morning for a week. The schools' summer vacations will coincide with Denver Public Schools' summer-school program so that any students who are behind can attend.

Barbara Cooper, principal at McGlone, where more than 29 percent of students speak Spanish, says that the new schedule will also offer her school's Mexican population more flexibility. "We find that when we have shorter breaks during the school year, a lot of kids don't come back for another week. Now that students will get three weeks for spring break instead of one, they'll have more time to go to Mexico," she says.

The school will also begin "looping," or keeping kids with the same teacher year after year. "We're looking for reform, period," Cooper says. "But there's always that underlying threat to convert schools into charter schools."

The Denver Board of Education approved the schools' proposal on February 15, bringing the total number of year-round schools in DPS to 13. Colfax was the first, in 1995; the others -- Bryant-Webster, Cheltenham, Columbian, Eagleton, Harrington, Smedley, Valdez and Wyman elementary schools -- followed a few years later. No middle or high schools have expressed an interest in converting to year-round schedules, according to DPS spokesman Mark Stevens. But, he notes, "there's no reason they can't."

Some of these schools switched before there was much pressure from the CSAP tests, which were first given in April 1997. When Harrington Elementary made the change, principal Sally Edwards was simply thinking of ways to improve student performance. "All the research points to year-round schools having a leg up, particularly inner-city schools with low socioeconomic levels," she says. "It's not beneficial for students to be out of school for three months a year, especially Spanish-speaking students who don't use any English at all during the summer; they lapse when they come back in August."

Approximately 76 percent of the students at Harrington speak Spanish, according to Edwards, and 98 percent of students are minorities. "Our test scores are going up gradually," she says, adding that on the math portion of last year's CSAP, the school's minority students surpassed the average score of other minority students in Colorado. "We were in the top 25 percent of the district in math, our fourth-grade reading and writing scores grew by 10 to 15 percent over the previous year, and our third-graders increased by 10 percent. It's not leaps and bounds, but it's progress."

Still, Edwards warns, "Any increase in test scores can't be attributed to one thing. It's not just that we're open year-round; we also loop, we've invested a lot of money in staff development, and we do team teaching."

Ricardo Concha, executive director of elementary education for DPS, says the research on year-round schools isn't definitive. "We know it doesn't hurt, but it may not help," he says. "I don't know how you can isolate the calendar from other things that are going on at a school, like instructional programs and staffing patterns. I suppose it could be done, but it would have to be a really sophisticated study. The take here is that if there's no detrimental effect, and there's a community that wants to do it, fine. Although the staff doesn't endorse a year-round calendar as a universally effective method of addressing growth in student achievement, we believe each proposal should be considered on its own merits."

The staff and parents at Maxwell, which opened in 1998, began seriously considering the year-round calendar this fall. Woodson surveyed the faculty about the idea and says 27 of the 29 staff members favored the switch. "The two who originally voted against it just weren't sure about giving up their calendar, but they said that if the majority wanted it, they'd support it." In addition, after surveying the community, Woodson found that 75 percent of people liked the concept.

"Our sole purpose is to do everything we can to boost student achievement," he says. "We'll have more time to teach, and the kids will have less time to forget. No one thing will be the panacea, but anything we can do can help."