Year-round class looked promising at four CMS schools. So why aren’t kids seeing gains?

Students arrive in July 2015 to start classes at Thomasboro Academy, one of the Project LIFT schools that has 19 extra days and a year-round calendar.
Students arrive in July 2015 to start classes at Thomasboro Academy, one of the Project LIFT schools that has 19 extra days and a year-round calendar.

In the daunting world of school reform, Project LIFT’s investment in year-round school seemed like an easy win.

Students in four of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s most struggling schools would see shorter summer breaks, helping them stay focused on learning. Two of those schools would get 19 extra days, with private donors footing the $2 million-a-year bill.

North Carolina’s lawmakers, generally eager to keep schools from encroaching on the August tourism season, gave their blessing for the schools to start in July.

But after three years those students show no measurable benefit, a new Project LIFT evaluation shows.

The findings are a setback and a puzzle, not only to a community that has invested $55 million in Project LIFT but to a state that’s pinning some of its hopes for low-performing schools on calendar flexibility.

“We are somewhat confounded by the data,” said Anna Nelson, co-chair of the Project LIFT board.

What was once a five-year project that would have ended in June has been extended to 2017-18, which means the donors and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which run the nine LIFT schools as a public-private partnership, must decide quickly whether to revise the calendars for the coming year.

“We still believe in the mission of trying to combat summer learning loss,” Nelson said, but that could mean scaling back on the expense of paying teachers and other staff for a longer year. The school board is expected to discuss options this month.

Summer learning loss” refers to the well-documented slippage of academic skills that comes after a long hiatus. Students who have the most advantages – homes filled with books and families who can send them to summer enrichment programs, for example – lose less than those from impoverished families, national research shows.

Nelson says the LIFT board (it stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation) believed that such research made it clear that students would benefit from extra time and shorter summer breaks. The year-round schedules, which started in 2013-14, were seen as a privately funded pilot that might spur bigger public spending when results came in.

But after three years, those results have yet to materialize. An independent evaluation by Research for Action showed students at the four preK-8 schools with revised calendars – Byers, Bruns, Druid Hills and Thomasboro – did about the same on last year’s reading and math exams as disadvantaged students in CMS schools used for comparison. All four year-round schools continue to have very low state ratings, with fewer than one-third of students earning grade-level scores on reading or math.

So what happened?

For starters, Project LIFT chose West Charlotte High and its feeder schools because they were among the lowest-performing schools in CMS. A year later, when LIFT decided to try year-round school, it chose four schools with the biggest academic struggles.

In other words, those students had a lot of ground to make up.

Meanwhile, students at high-poverty schools with traditional calendars generally have access to different kinds of summer learning, such as BELL summer reading camps.

Because the year-round sample is small – Byers and Bruns have the traditional 180 days, with the breaks distributed throughout the year, while Druid Hills and Thomasboro have extra days – it was difficult to get a solid comparison, the research report says.

And because the other 164 CMS schools start in late August, the year-round schools have struggled to make newcomers aware that they open in July. At Byers, whose zone includes the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter, many students still miss the first weeks of school, said Principal Anthony Calloway.

While LIFT leaders may have believed they were making a solid investment based on research, the evaluation sounds a discordant note: Existing research “shows no conclusive evidence” that year-round calendars bring academic benefits.

A national research review by Duke Institute for Brain Sciences professor Harris Cooper concludes that the problem of summer learning loss is clear, but solutions are less obvious. Extending the school year could require adding as many as 35 days to yield significant gains, he reports, while simply adjusting the calendar “may have a small positive impact on student achievement and a more noticeable impact on the achievement of disadvantaged children, but the existing research contains design flaws that render conclusions tentative at best.”

Project LIFT’s Nelson says all four principals of the year-round schools told the LIFT board they’ve seen benefits that aren’t showing up in data. That’s been a consistent theme through the first four years of the project: Leaders have learned that they have to gain control of discipline, build enthusiasm for learning and engage families before measurable gains show up.

Meanwhile, a report on school calendar flexibility presented to the General Assembly last month suggests that while calendar flexibility is controversial – a number of tourism groups prefer the current requirement that most schools start the year in late August – a schedule with shorter summer breaks could benefit high-poverty, low-performing schools.

Several bills have been introduced to provide more flexibility for some or all schools in North Carolina.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms