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School year-round not a bad idea

When the heat of mid-June in Michigan rolled in, I often daydreamed at school about summer vacation. I looked forward to family trips, backyard barbecues and riding my bike until the street lights flickered on.

But I also remember the boredom that set in a month after school ended, and how I wished for a return to the classroom and my friends. Call me a geek, but I was eager to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Besides, much of what I learned that previous year always seemed to get lost between the time the last school bell rang and the first one chimed again.

Looking back, I wonder whether my classmates and I would have been better off attending school year round. How much more knowledge would we have retained? How many more opportunities would we have had to broaden our malleable minds?

The debate about year-round school isn’t new, but it has recently become a topic of controversy following President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s call for a longer school year and school day.

Critics argue that it’s pointless to consider an extended year given our budget mess that has resulted in teacher layoffs, program cutbacks and larger class sizes.

Where would we find the money to support this plan? Our local schools are already stretched too thin. Moreover, thanks to budget deficits, California is headed in the opposite direction, with the governor negotiating to scale back the current 180 days and many districts eliminating or reducing summer school.

Then, there’s the argument that sitting in a classroom for hours doesn’t translate to a higher level of education. Isn’t it the quality of instruction from engaged teachers that matters most? And what about summer days filled with childhood exploration? That wouldn’t be easy to give up.

Still, I’m not willing to take the idea completely off the table, even if it isn’t likely to see the light of day until it’s financially feasible to implement.

My son isn’t school age yet, but I know from talking to other parents that the demands on them and their children continue to pile up. The stakes in this increasingly complex world have never been higher for children, who are required to achieve excellence academically and in extra-curricular activities.

The demands, too, are great for teachers making do with fewer resources and limited time for planning. An extended school day or school year would free teachers to improve the curriculum, and more hours could equal better pay, luring the best and brightest into the profession.

On a global level, our children must be able to compete with those in other nations like Japan and South Korea, where students attend school well over 200 days a year.

It would also, to use a well-worn cliché, level the playing field for economically disadvantaged children who often do not have access to summer camps or academic enrichment.

Research has shown that low-income students are able to close the gap with their high-income counterparts when they have uninterrupted opportunities for learning.

And let’s not forget what it would mean to frazzled parents, many of whom work two jobs to pay the bills and scramble to find child care in the summer months.

Making the switch wouldn’t be easy. It would require a dramatic shift in our thinking about how we educate our children.

There are many alternatives to ponder that would get us where we ultimately need to go. It could be done in incremental steps, gradually increasing the number of school days until we’re on a year-round calendar. We could start, as Superintendent Julian Crocker suggests, by adding five additional days to the calendar for staff development.

We could solicit the input of the private sector and nonprofit groups that have a vested interest in supporting academic excellence to launch after-school or summer programs that emphasize what’s being taught in the classroom. One local organization, People’s Self-Help Housing, has already had success with its program in Paso Robles, where it has built a study center at a low-income rental housing complex. About 65 children from four Paso Robles elementary schools come each day to get homework help and participate in academic activities.

For the sake of our nation’s future, we should make it our business to push for quantity as well as quality in our educational system. Our kids expect nothing less of us, and — ahem — may even thank us one day for eliminating traditional summer vacation.

I’m the first to admit that I have fond memories of playing tag and chasing after the ice cream truck but spending that extra time enriching my academic skills could have been just as meaningful.