A trip to the beach, a day at the pool, a trip to an amusement park. It’s what you’d expect to see on any kid’s list of things to look forward to during summer vacation.
But Kriscynthia Palacios says her children are looking forward to more time in the classroom this summer and less time piled into her car as she runs her roofing business.
“My 8-year-old son, he says, ‘At least I don’t have to sweat in the car. At least I could go and be with my friends at school and learn,'” Palacios says.
Palacios has three children who attend Gordon Parks Elementary School in Kansas City. Starting in June, the charter school will add 31 school days to its schedule, allowing students to attend classes year-round.
Palacios says the updated schedule — still rare among Missouri schools — will make it easier to support her family without worrying about childcare during summer vacation.
“Throughout the summer, they don’t do anything but get into trouble around the house and break things,” Palacios says. “While they are in school, on the contrary, their brain works. And they learn more for their future.
Over the summer, students are believed to lose some of the learning they have gained over the year – a phenomenon known as “summer slippage”.
Kent Yocum, Principal of Gordon Parks, says year-round schooling could bridge that summer gap and help students catch up on learning behind due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We won’t have to spend the time of this first month of school relearning school processes, because it will only be a few weeks,” Yocum says. “Nor will we have to spend this time relearning things that were lost over the summer.”
School administrators say the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to meet the needs of students throughout the year, beyond academics. Many students at the school live in poorer areas, face housing insecurity and have suffered trauma.
Yocum says students don’t just learn at Gordon Parks Elementary; they also have access to therapists, family advocates, free meals and a family emergency fund — and they need it all year round.
“If we don’t meet the needs of not only the children, but also their parents, we’re going to struggle with the academic part,” Yocum says.
Yocum led the schedule change at Gordon Parks, inspired by his previous experience with the North Kansas City School District.
He was part of a team that developed a year-long program at two of the district’s elementary schools, Winnwood and Crestview. About 80% of students at both schools received a free, reduced lunch and were underachieving in reading and math compared to the rest of the district.
Winnwood Elementary principal Leah Copeland says since her school moved to a year-long schedule in 2015, she’s seen improved student achievement and emotional growth.
She also says the new schedule got students back to class faster during the COVID pandemic and gave them extra school time to catch up.
“We have a lot of surgeries in place that we’re able to do 12 months of the year because our schedule works that way,” Copeland says. “And it helped us get the kids moving faster.”
Proponents of the year-round school say the pandemic has sparked more interest in this alternative model.
David Hornak, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education, says he’s seen a significant increase in inquiries from school boards and school leaders across the country.
“The school leaders who are out there are asking, ‘Is this model a way to help reclaim some of that unfinished learning that’s happened? “, says Hornak.
Still, he says there isn’t a “huge” increase in schools adopting this model, perhaps because it’s difficult to change a long-established pattern.
“As adults, we keep saying, ‘We want a long summer break so our kids can play outside and they can have the same summers we had in the 70s, 80s, and 90s,'” says Hornak.
Yocum says he understands the concerns about families not having enough break time, but Gordon Parks families don’t usually take extended vacations anyway.
He says staff and students will always get a break. It will just be shorter and spread over the year. Additionally, he says the school seeks to provide experiences students wouldn’t normally have, including trips to the pool or park and experiential learning.
“We kind of look for what’s best for our kids. If they had more of these opportunities in their neighborhoods with swimming pools that were going to be open or nearby, if they had easily accessible libraries, then the situation might be a little different,” Yocum says.
Kirsten Lipari-Braman, CEO of Gordon Parks, says the new learning model has been made possible through COVID Relief funding, which will help pay for extra transportation and overtime teachers will be working.
She says teachers were initially split on the schedule and preoccupied with their summer plans. But after the school offered flexibility for the holidays, all teachers said they intended to return for the school year.
“These are phenomenal and committed teachers that they see, yes, it will kind of retract and continue in June. But man, it’s really in the best interest of our kids. And so they adopt it,” Lipari-Braman says.
Lipari-Braman says the school board plans to stick to the new schedule even when the COVID dollars run out. Because if it works for their kids, she says, they’ll keep going for as long as they can.