As many Montgomery County teachers spent Friday in training or preparing their classrooms for students to return from summer break in September, educators at Arcola Elementary School were teaching.
Arcola is one of two Montgomery County public schools testing an extended calendar this school year and Friday was the last day of the pilot program’s first summer session.
At 3:50 p.m., students at Arcola and Roscoe Nix elementary schools dismissed for a two-week break, punctuating what Arcola Principal Emmanuel Jean-Philippe called a “wonderful experience.”
Classes for Arcola and Nix, both in Silver Spring, began July 8, three weeks after the 2018-19 school year dismissed. The remainder of the school calendar aligns with that of “traditional calendar” schools, aside from some early release and staff professional development days.
The last day of the 2019-20 school year is June 11 for Arcola and Nix, while all other schools will dismiss June 15.
Arcola, with about 650 students, and Nix, with about 500 students, both have diverse student populations, with less than 5% of students identifying as white, according to school system data.
Arcola serves students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, while Nix has students enrolled in pre-K through second grade.
About three-fourths of students at each school qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, an indicator the county uses to identify families in poverty.
The 30 additional days of classes allow teachers at the two schools to “dive deeper” into curriculum and offer more “enrichment” activities, like field trips, experiments and community service activities that may be difficult to fit into a traditional school year.
Along with the standard curriculum, Arcola and Nix students implemented “Project Lead The Way,” a program that offers hands-on activities in subject areas like engineering and science. Additionally, the schools focus on “mindfulness,” a program that uses methods like breathing exercises to help students “self-regulate” and maintain a positive mindset.
“Incorporating the mindfulness concepts into our classroom has helped the students focus on their learning and how to work with each other in a collaborative manner,” said Katrina Wetzel, a kindergarten teacher at Nix. “We focus on mindful body and then mindful breathing. We take deep breaths and talk about how that helps us feel calm and relaxed and then we focus on the things we need to get done each day.”
For many families, the nearly year-round classes ease the burden of finding — and affording — child care during the summer and ensures students are receiving healthy meals, Jean-Philippe said. Each morning, students receive breakfast in their classrooms.
But, most important, he said, it ensures children are in a structured environment where they are learning and, hopefully, preventing “summer learning loss.”
Research indicates students with continuous learning are more likely to retain information, having the largest impact on students with special needs and English language learners.
A study by the Education Resources Information Center says children from low-income families are less likely to have access to high-quality reading materials during long breaks from school and, thus, are more likely to exhibit summer learning loss.
Experts recommend that changes in teaching strategy accompany longer school calendars and that about 35 days be added to make an impact on achievement.
“I know people have different opinions about it, but as a principal, I want kids in school, learning and growing in an enriching environment,” Jean-Philippe said. “I can’t compete with trips to Germany or Disney World, but I know when kids are here, they’re doing things that are helpful, and I can tell by the smiles I see and the chatter I hear that they’re generally happy.”
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, though.
Some parents say their children get frustrated when they are in school while their friends are on summer vacation. Some were frustrated by what they felt was a lack of a clear plan for the program when it started.
Others questioned why MCPS would launch an extended school year program after Washington, D.C., public schools ditched a similar program in February, citing a lack of progress negating summer learning loss and teacher burnout.
The D.C. school system invested $7.5 million in the program over three years, which added 20 school days to the academic calendar at 13 “low-performing schools,” incorporating shorter, frequent breaks during the school year.
MCPS defended its decision to test the program, saying Arcola and Nix students receive more focused and rigorous curriculum.
Then, in May, teachers at Arcola and Nix voiced frustration about their contracts after discovering principals were to receive a stipend more than four times that of which teachers were to receive.
The teachers’ union helped to re-open contract negotiations with the school system and ultimately agreed educators would receive a $3,000 stipend and additional salary for working the 30 extra days.
Originally, teachers were slated to receive a $2,000 stipend, while principals receive a $9,000 stipend.
Regardless of any lingering hesitation, students and staff have shown up for class, Jean-Philippe said. At Arcola, student attendance during the summer session hovered between 85% and 92%, he said.
“What I try to explain to people is this change isn’t really as drastic as it sometimes is made out to be, and a lot of the problems we faced — attendance, home problems, burnout — are problems we face from September to June, too,” Jean-Philippe said. “It’s all about putting things into perspective and dealing with situations on a case-by-case basis.”
Anecdotally, the principal said he is pleased with the pilot program, but MCPS will use feedback from parents and data about student achievement and literacy to determine its effectiveness.
That data could take several years to paint a complete picture of the program’s success, Jean-Philippe said.
“There are so many variables that can impact student outcomes, so I think it will take some time to see how this particular program is impacting that, but in the meantime, I’m constantly benchmarking student, parent and staff feedback and trying to ensure we’re on the right path,” Jean-Philippe said. “If we’re doing the best we can, it’s going to be a positive experience.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com