Do your homework on small, year-round schools

Smaller schools and year-round classes are two educational ideas that have consistently shown promise for making schools better.

Beyond promise, both approaches share another characteristic. They are difficult to implement, but not impossible. The efforts are certainly worthwhile in light of what educators, research and common sense tell us about the possibilities of taking new paths.

With smaller schools, especially in high school, many students appear to do significantly better because they and their teachers get to know each other. The personal relationships tend to help students remain interested in school and to keep potential dropouts, even in some of New York City’s toughest schools, on a good academic track. Year-round classes show the ability to help students retain academic material better than happens with one long summer break.

Encouragingly, many school districts in the area have pushed themselves to look for creative ways to incorporate the ideas into parts of their programs. For instance, the Edmonds School District has designed recent high school construction to allow options for breaking schools down into smaller units, with closer contact among teachers and students. Earlier this fall, Monroe High School received a grant from the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation to instill a small-school feeling on campus.

In the Mukilteo district, another Gates Foundation grant has Mariner High School busy planning to break the student population into six units of about 200 to 250 students next fall. Today, staff members begin a series of seminars on the changes.

The district is also the latest to take a closer look at the possibility of a year-round schedule that includes a number of shorter breaks rather than one long summer vacation. The school board has approved a study of whether to offer a year-round calendar at a new elementary schedule, which will open in the fall of 2003.

The alternative schedule doesn’t work well for many families, especially those with other children at schools with traditional schedules. But the year-round plan can work where parents and the community choose to implement it. So Mukilteo’s decision to look closely at the options makes perfect sense.

Even when a complete switch isn’t possible, schools and communities can learn from a study process and potentially find ways to incorporate some of the benefits of a modified schedule or school structure. Neither year-round schooling nor the smaller-school philosophy is rocket science. But both seem to allow schools to accomplish more — which is exactly what students, teachers and communities want.

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