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Should kids go to school year round?
Studies show teacher attrition down and student knowledge retention up in the 12-weeks on, 3-weeks off model. Here’s how it works in one charter school in Washington Heights, Manhattan.
It was a quarter to six on a middle-of-the-week school night in February and English teacher Giselle Jimenez sat in the back of the darkened George Washington High School’s auditorium. She was helping to chaperone the nearly 400 kids from The Equity Project (TEP) Charter Middle School. The buzz was palpable.
For the Washington Heights charter middle school kids, this was musical performance night and, as per tradition, the final celebration before a long three-week winter break, one of three such breaks throughout the year. For Jimenez, who had been at the school since 7 a.m. that morning, it was a day closer to a needed hiatus.
The Equity Charter School operates on a year-round schedule with small built-in vacations. For the 2016 to 2017 school year, the kids already took their first three-week break back in October. After the mid-February break, the kids won’t see another until June when they leave the school for their summer vacation, which only lasts five weeks. Changing the school calendar is one of the innovations the charter takes advantage of. Others include the paying teachers on a higher pay-scale in exchange for longer hours and expanded responsibilities.
The breaks in the year-round schedule are meant to combat issues such as overworked teachers and academic backsliding over a three-month summer break. To support families that can’t afford enrichment and supervision for their kids while school is closed in February, The Equity Project joined with non profits in the city to create affordable educational camps.
Teachers use a week or two of the break time to assess the previous trimester and prepare for the next. Jimenez — who is in her third year at TEP — likes the rhythm of twelve weeks on, two weeks off. She believes that it gives teachers the perfect amount of time to recuperate before going back to give it her all again.
“Teaching takes a lot out of you,” said Jimenez, who also coaches TEP’s girls Step Team, a dance ensemble. “You’re not just going to clock out at 5 o’clock and go home and do nothing. You’re always going to think, ‘oh man, that lesson didn’t go well. How can I fix this, how can I change this, how can I make this better?”
Back in the auditorium at George Washington High School, the large gothic high school that often shares its space with TEP, the curtain came up. Groups of kids rotated in to play the drums, guitar, bass, piano, and sing a dozen songs that they had rehearsed all trimester. They belt out hits such as “Halo” by Beyonce, “Lost Boy” by Ruth B, and “In The End” by Linkin Park. With each new group, the kids in the audience hoot, holler, and dance in their seats.
When an ensemble of kids struck the first note of “Lost Boy,” Jimenez ran down from the back of the auditorium where she was sitting to one of the front seats in the audience. She held up her cell phone and pressed record. This was hour 12 that Jimenez had been at TEP that day. Teachers in the charter TEP easily clock in 60 to 70 hours at the end of any given school week.
TEP garnered national attention when it opened in 2009 with the idea that paying teachers $125,000 as a starting salary would boost overall quality of the school. The idea was that it would attract and build a team of non-union teachers with a competitive salary. In order to pay teachers six figures, the school had to keep the staff small and the teachers had to take on additional roles, such performing the duties of an assistant principal or a guidance counselor. For Jimenez, in addition to coaching the Step Team, she also hosts an after-school homework club for fifth graders.
At the pace Jimenez and any of her fellow teachers are going, it would be easy to burn out without a break in between the long chunks of instruction. In the U.S., 7.7 percent of teachers leave their job every year, according to the Learning Policy Institute. That’s a little over 2 percent more than it was in 1989, which works out to over 60,000 teachers leaving the profession annually.
In 2014, the Mathematica Policy Research published an evaluation on TEP’s first four years for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The group found that nearly half of the TEP’s first-year teachers did not return the following year. Two years later, the rate dropped to 7 percent. This is a slight increase compared to the previous year’s number of 3.1 percent. But compared to 23 percent of teachers who did not return after the 2013–2014 school year, the improvement was notable. However, it’s not clear how much of that number are first-year teachers.
For Jimenez, she said that doesn’t feel tired as she did before when she taught in Houston, Texas prior to teaching in Washington Heights. She attributes this change to the breaks in TEP’s schedule.
“It’s like the perfect little break,” she said.
For the students, the three short vacation bursts throughout the year serve as a way to break up a long summer stint where knowledge retention from one grade to the next tends to fade. Many educators and researchers call this the “summer slide,” and it seems to have a bigger effect on children from low-income families. Researchers at the American Sociological Review argue that low-income students are significantly more disadvantaged due to the fact that most can’t afford to participate in a summer enrichment program. Because of this, they end up regressing academically.
Jimenez struggled with this phenomenon at her previous teaching job.
“I remember teaching fourth grade in Houston and being like, ‘I saw your third-grade teacher teaching you this at the end of third grade in June, and then two months later, you have no idea what’s going on? And I have to reteach you the same thing,’” she said. “It’s nice that they only get like five weeks off because although it’s a lot of time, it’s not enough time to let the knowledge dissipate.”
The year-round idea evolved through trial and error. When it was first founded, the school was on a traditional schedule. When it switched to the year-round schedule in 2011, administrators realized they needed to create create supplemental enrichment programs to bridge the short gap. This year, TEP partnered for the first time with Ionic6 — a Brooklyn-based coding camp for kids. Incorporated in 2014, the program was designed as a way to expose children to computer science and the learning behind it.
“What we do is we teach kids how to code in a fun and engaging environment,” said Ionic6 executive director Georgia Forbes. “We take away the barriers in the learning and the intimidation factor. It’s not as hard as it appears to be. We take all the concepts and try to simplify them.”
Forbes, who also works in information security for Goldman Sachs, said that over the course of three weeks, the kids learn how to make video games, make music videos, and program robotics. They even get to participate in an end-of-the-program hackathon, where a problem is presented and the kids spend the day solving it in teams.
According to Casey Ash, TEP’s eighth-grade teacher and middle school director, teachers at TEP anticipated that families would want options for their kids during the long trimester breaks, so local partnerships were formed. TEP also work with the camps to create an affordable price point since over 80 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“The price of the camps varies,” said Ash in an email, “but TEP pays anywhere from $105 to $120 per student per week and families pay from $45 to $120 per week. The amount each family pays is determined on a sliding scale based upon whether or not the student is free-lunch/reduced-price lunch/or full-price lunch.
Still, some of these camps are out of reach for some families. If a family can’t afford to pay for the enrichment camps but are interested in participating, Ash said that the school’s social work department has a “process of determining a fair and objective procedure for offering select families scholarships.”
Towards the end of the musical performance night at George Washington High School, Ash took the mic to address the students. He thanked the school for a great trimester, a great night of performances, and announced that tomorrow will be a snow day. The auditorium erupted in celebration. There will now only be one day left before school is let out. Ash then introduced the last act of the night: TEP’s all-girl step team.
The faculty cleared off the instruments on stage and two dozen girls dressed in black file out. Jimenez is just off stage, ready to observe the girls’ routine.
“During the year, when they come back from the three-week break, you pick up exactly where you left off,” Jimenez said. “You don’t really forget anything. It feels natural. Like, ‘Oh, we never took time off.’ It’s a continuation of what happened three weeks ago.”
After that night, Jimenez just had one day left of teaching. After that, she’ll escape to Cuba for vacation.