Why the Year-Round School Calendar Doesn’t Work in Wake County

Wake County has 110 elementary schools and 34 middle schools.  Twenty-seven of the elementary schools and 9 of the middle schools operate on a multi-track or modified year-round calendar. All schools, both year-round and traditional, have a mix of under- or over-enrollment and the enrollment numbers are a constantly moving target based on new families moving to the area, application requests to different schools, and the flux of kids coming and going at any given time.

The county  began opening and operating the year-round calendar schools somewhere around 2004. The theory was schools could operate more efficiently and accommodate more students in the rapidly growing area, eliminating the need for trailers on school grounds and solving the difficult problem of finding affordable land for new school construction.

Propaganda targeted at parents who were skeptical of a year-round calendar that differed so drastically from the traditional summer breaks we’re all used to, said year-round schools offer less summer learning loss and kids were more refreshed and ready to learn when there are multiple breaks through the year.

But … parental acceptance of the year-round calendar has always been tepid at best, with WCPSS getting pushback every time it’s tried to convert traditional calendar schools to a year-round schedule. As I write this, WCPSS has been meeting to discuss the transition of several year-round schools back to traditional calendars in the 2018-19 school year because the schools are under-enrolled and they want to address the imbalance in demand for the year-round schools district-wide. The booming population predictions and dire warnings about overcrowded schools has never quite come to fruition. And, our middle school principal recently left a voicemail that indicated, in not so many words, that our school’s track 2 may be collapsing next year and since the school is under-enrolled, it seems a feasible possibility.

As a parent living in a high-growth area of Wake County, whose kids have been in year-round schools since kindergarten, I can tell you my feelings about the whole thing … it’s a hot mess.

Year-round schools may be a good idea in theory. Four breaks a year are nice in that it allows for flexibility in vacation scheduling, but I’m not sure that has anything to do with academic benefit. My kids do look forward to and are ready for the breaks when they come, but I believe it’s only because that’s all they’ve ever known.  If they’d been in traditional calendar all this time, they wouldn’t know the difference and they’d be happy for summer break. I don’t believe the idea that academics improve due to the year-round calendar has borne out.

The actual result of the year-round experiment has been a school district constantly in flux and upheaval, for both the school system and for parents.

For the school system, I can’t begin to imagine the resources and time that have been wasted over the years trying to convince parents of the benefits of year-round schools, discussing the conversion of year-round schools, trying to balance the attendance at year-round schools, publicizing reminders of the start of the school year twice, and figuring out and managing the transportation issues.

For parents and students on the less popular tracks two and three, how many times have they seen their calendars switch and teachers change because the school has had to collapse their track due to under-enrollment?  For students taking specialized programs like 6+/7+ math – how is it to have to wait four or more weeks to start their class because their school year begins in July but WCPSS’ programming accommodates for traditional calendar and somehow can’t get their planning right to have the materials ready for the year-round calendar kids? How about trying to get deals on school supplies in June, when most stores don’t have their sales until late August?

And how about area small businesses who make their revenue from track-out camps and who face the possibility of going out of business every time WCPSS decides they need to look at shifting school calendars and eliminating year-round schools?

How about the impact on parents who have kids in elementary, middle and high-schools simultaneously and never have a kid on the same schedule or never know what their schedule is going to look like from year-to-year?

There’s Saturday school make-up days from inclement weather, which are usually woefully under-attended because most families have previous plans – sports, travel, etc. – on weekends. And there’s learning loss every 9 weeks from kids who know their break is coming and become useless in school the last week before track-out, the take-home “trackets” of work they’re expected to do during the so-called break, and the general schedule disruption that happens every 9 weeks instead of once a year.

There’s the fact that most of these year-round kids, save for track 1 and occasionally track 2, are stuck with the same kids in their class every single year, because there is only one track 2 first grade class for example. It doesn’t give them much exposure to other kids, or get them away from a bully if they’re having trouble socially.

As a parent, I’m tired of explaining the year-round thing to family from out-of-state and I feel like my kids’ time in elementary school absolutely flew by because they were in school all the time, all year. I’m tired of trying to work in a family summer vacation during the four-week break in June when my sister’s kids are out of school all summer and I’m tired of the limited options for summer camps and activities because many of them take place in July and August, when my kids are already back in school.

I’m tired of worrying that my kids classes will be overcrowded next year because one of the other tracks collapsed and all of those kids are now going to be integrated into our track, without necessarily the added resources. I’m tired of hearing about all of it, and I’m tired of every single Facebook post I read from a fellow parent as post July pics of their kids first day of school, who then they try to answer the inevitable question from Auntie Beth about why their kids are in school in the summer.

I’ve thought about this so much over the years. I know a fair number of parents who just love year-round, and an equal number who don’t. I’ve come to the conclusion that WCPSS needs to give up the ghost on this one.  They’d take some heat from the parents who just LOVE year-round schools, but they take heat anyway and since we’re talking just 36 schools affected, I think they might as well just rip that band-aid off. I realize some businesses would suffer, and I don’t have an answer for that other than to say WCPSS should have thought this through more carefully when they started this whole experiment in the first place.

Sadly, I’m coming to the end of the year-round experiment. My oldest will be in high school next year, and my youngest has two years left. I say sadly, because I’m pretty sure I would have preferred traditional calendar but it was just never an option unless I wanted to move to a different part of the county, something that still wouldn’t have guaranteed anything. And, I’m just tired of it all. Isn’t WCPSS tired of it, too?