It's the first day of school at Hall Fletcher Elementary in Asheville, N.C. Principal Gordon Grant stands outside in a white suit and bow tie, greeting students. The kids arrive sporting fresh haircuts and new shoes. One even wears a tutu.
But the biggest change on this first day of school may be the least obvious. It's July, and students are returning after just five weeks of break. This public school is beginning a three-year experiment, running on a year-round schedule for the first time. The students will get the same number of school days as others in the district, just distributed differently: five weeks in the summer, three-week breaks in September and March, plus a winter holiday vacation.
A primary motivation for the change is to make sure kids don't fall behind academically over the long summer break — a phenomenon known as the "summer slide." About 80 percent of the students at this school are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and Grant says, "children who don't have really good enriching opportunities provided for them in the summer move back academically."
Tamera Owen is the grandmother of two students at Hall Fletcher, a kindergartner and a second-grader, and she says she can see them "retaining things that they learned."
Karl Alexander is a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University. He studies learning gaps between students at different income levels. He says a gap widens during the summer break, when "school is out of the picture" and students are dependent on the resources of their families and communities. Asheville City Schools has seen this pattern first-hand, after giving students tests before and after summer vacation.
According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, 3,700 public schools in the United States operate year-round. That's about 4 percent of the nation's schools. They are most common in the South. While research on student achievement in year-round schools is spotty and inconclusive, some studies have shown a small, positive effect.
Paul von Hippel studies educational inequality at the University of Texas at Austin, and he says the benefits of year-round school seem to even out over time: "Students learn more in the summer," but, on the other hand, "they're learning less in the school year."
This isn't the first time Hall Fletcher has tried to shift to a year-round schedule, also known as a "balanced schedule." They experimented with the idea back in the '90s.
"After three years they dropped it because of the mismatch of the balanced school year calendar with the regular school year calendar," says Principal Grant. "I think we've done a better job of matching those calendars this year."
This story comes to us from member station WCQS in Asheville, N.C.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
During these dog days of summer, for most American children, back-to-school season feels a long way off, though not at one elementary school in North Carolina which is kicking off its first full week of the new school year. From WCQS in Asheville, North Carolina, Greta Johnsen explains why.
GRETA JOHNSEN, BYLINE: The kids are in their first-day finest - new shoes, haircuts, there are even a couple of tutus. Parents are dropping off their children and teachers are greeting them as they stream into Hall Fletcher Elementary.
GORDON GRANT: So how many scholars will get out of this car? Hey, Maleek, chess champion. Hey, Manny, here you go, bud.
JOHNSEN: In a white suit and bow tie, Principal Gordon Grant welcomes each student by name as they climb out of cars and grab their book bags. These kids are back after five weeks of summer vacation. That's about half of what they're used to. There are some sleepy faces, but for the most part, the students seem as excited as they normally are, on the first day of school. Hall Fletcher is starting a three-year experiment with the new year-round calendar. Here's Principal Grant.
GRANT: Children who don't have really good, enriching opportunities provided for them in the summer move back academically.
JOHNSEN: Those kids often come from families that can't afford summer camps or vacations. About 80 percent of the kids here come from low-income families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The kids will get the same amount of school, just distributed differently. There will be five weeks of summer break, then two three-week breaks in September and March, along with Christmas break. Tamera Owen is the grandmother of two Hall Fletcher students, one second-grader and one kindergartner.
TAMERA OWEN: My second-grader remembered his lunch number today. Last year he couldn't remember it. And I was like, yes, they retained the things they learned.
JOHNSEN: A sociology professor, Karl Alexander, at Johns Hopkins University, has studied learning gaps between kids from different economic backgrounds.
KARL ALEXANDER: Almost all that gap-increase happened during the long summer break when all children's learning is dependent on the resources available to them and their families and their communities with school out of the picture.
JOHNSEN: A couple of years ago, Asheville City schools tested kids in reading before-and-after summer breaks. Kelvin Cyrus is the assistant superintendent for the district.
KELVIN CYRUS: Our numbers broke out the same way. You could tell during the school year the growth was almost the same, a little bit more for those who we're not economically disadvantaged. But that whole summer thing was right here at home.
JOHNSEN: Only about 3 or 4 percent of the schools in the United States operate on a year-round schedule. So, there isn't much data to show how much of a boost they give kids. Paul Von Hippel has studied year-round education. He's with the University of Texas in Austin.
PAUL VON HIPPEL: Students learn more in the summer because they're getting some instruction then. But they're learning less during the school year because they have these extra breaks. And over 12 months the total amount that students learn doesn't change.
JOHNSEN: Helping the school transition to the new calendar is Evelina Pierce, an AmeriCorps volunteer. She went door to door with Principal Grant to convince families to try the new schedule. She said it helped that many of the parents here used to be Grants students.
EVELINA PIERCE: And he has built that relationship with people, where they do trust that he is doing things to support them and their children.
JOHNSEN: But Pierce says she knows of at least three families who said they left Hall Fletcher because of the calendar change. This isn't Hall Fletcher's first experiment with year-round school either. Principal Grant says they tried it back in the 90s, but gave up on it.
GRANT: After three years they dropped it because of the mismatch of the balanced school year calendar with the regular school year calendar. I think we've done a better job of matching those calendars this year.
JOHNSEN: Cyrus, the assistant superintendent says, even if test scores don't improve he still likes the idea of a year-round calendar. After all, the one we've got now is based on an agrarian lifestyle that most of us don't live by. For NPR News I'm Greta Johnsen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.