Should students have year-round school?

New winter break could be a prelude to bigger calendar changes

Wynn Hammond, 6, enjoys the water slide Tuesday morning at the Durango Community Recreation Center’s pool. Wynn visited the pool with his mother, Mary Hammond, who said the family moved to the area from Long Beach, Calif., two weeks ago. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Wynn Hammond, 6, enjoys the water slide Tuesday morning at the Durango Community Recreation Center’s pool. Wynn visited the pool with his mother, Mary Hammond, who said the family moved to the area from Long Beach, Calif., two weeks ago.

Yesterday was not a regular Tuesday. The signs were everywhere: a constant stream of children zooming their sleds down the hill at Buckley Park, a bowling field trip that commenced not long after lunchtime at the Boys and Girls Club and excited youngsters dashing in and out of the Durango Community Recreation Center throughout the day.

And the rest of the week will be much the same.

This year will be the first that Durango School District 9-R students will be off the entire week for what the district is calling winter break. That’s in addition to spring break, which falls a few weeks later in April.

While the break represents a rearrangement of only a few days of the year, it has become both a target of criticism and a cautious experiment that could lead to bigger changes in the school calendar. District administrators said this change is a tiny first step in what may become a change to year-round school.

It all depends on how this week works out.

Creating the new calendar

This year’s calendar shortens summer break by a few days, and, by rearranging parent-teacher conference schedules, adds two more student-contact days, bringing the total to 175. The February break takes the place of a four-day weekend over Presidents Day, said Victor Figueroa, the district’s assistant superintendent of student achievement.

Administrators aren’t expecting to see visible changes in student achievement with the new schedule, Figueroa said. For the most part, the change is meant to test the waters and gauge community reaction to another weeklong break during the school year and slightly fewer days of summer vacation.

Feedback the district receives could spur more consideration about going toward a year-round schedule with eight or nine weeks of school broken up by one to two-week breaks, Figueroa said. But any change like that would require lengthy discussion and support from the community, teachers and district staff, he said.

Evidence shows that summer break causes students to lose a big portion of what they learned the previous year. A year-round model benefits all students, especially struggling learners, Figueroa said.

The current calendar was created in 2010 by a committee of about 25 teachers, administrators, staff, parents and community members. After settling on two potential calendars, the committee put both options to the community in an online survey. Of the 761 responders, about 60 percent supported the calendar that included the February break, Figueroa said. Teachers were the biggest supporters of the break.

After initial hesitation, the Durango school board approved the new schedule last January.

Delta County School District, southeast of Grand Junction, uses one of the calendars 9-R examined. Delta’s schools have a weeklong February break, as well as one in October, an arrangement the district has had since the early ’90s, said Bill Carlquist, the Delta County district’s director of school and community relations. Schools used to offer weeklong learning academies during the break to provide child care but they ended after budget cuts. The district never received much backlash, though. The breaks are popular with students and staff because everyone comes back refreshed, Carlquist said.

Headache of a February break

Durango’s calendar has its critics.

Three parents who spoke at the public comment session last January cited concerns about child care, job opportunities and the shortening of the summer break.

“Only a small percentage of 9-R families can afford to travel during that time,” a mother said. “For most people, it’s a week at home in town.”

The 10 weeks of summer provide a valuable window for children to take on a job and earn money for college, said parent Vicki McLaughlin. An available teenage workforce during summer also fills a crucial role in Durango’s seasonal tourist economy, parents said.

Among high-schoolers, opinions were mixed about the break. Some liked the extra time off to ski and relax while others complained that placing the break right before finals could end up hurting their test performance. Durango High School holds its finals the Thursday and Friday after students come back from break.

Child care coalition

One of the district’s solutions to child care was to create a group of local organizations that pooled their resources to provide a low-cost child care program for the week.

The collaboration has enhanced the programs the Boys and Girls Club and the Durango Recreation Center usually put on during school breaks, said Vaughn Morris, director of the Boys and Girls Club. The program costs $80 per child for five days.

There were some challenges to recruiting staff members, many of whom are in school this week at Fort Lewis College, but the nonprofit club and the recreation center are committed to offering the program however it’s needed, Morris said.

Students at the Boys and Girls Club on Monday were excited about activities like movies and field trips that were planned for the week ahead. “Instead of a snow day, it’s a snow week,” said Ty Westcott, a sixth-grader at Miller Middle School.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

The Boys and Girls Club of La Plata County was a popular place with Durango School District students on winter break. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

The Boys and Girls Club of La Plata County was a popular place with Durango School District students on winter break.

Neil Hemphill, with the Stillwater Foundation, leads a group of children in a music class at the Durango Community Recreation Center. Facilities such as the rec center offered a gamut of activities for students on winter break this week. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Neil Hemphill, with the Stillwater Foundation, leads a group of children in a music class at the Durango Community Recreation Center. Facilities such as the rec center offered a gamut of activities for students on winter break this week.

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