Last year, when Salt Lake School District moved its first elementary school, Whittier, to a year-round schedule, it didn't seem to be an unusual change.

Year-round had already become a fixture in Utah education, with districts such as Granite and Jordan switching more and more schools to year-round schedules to accommodate growing school populations.But Whittier was a first. It became Utah's first school to adopt a year-round calendar for academic reasons, not increasing enrollment. Whittier is featured in a new U.S. Department of Education publication, "Experiences in School Improvement."

"We'd come to the decision that we had to do something," said Whittier Principal Lew Gardiner.

For three or four years, test scores had been declining at the inner-city school. The turnover rate was high - 87.5 percent of the students who started Whittier in the fall had left by June. The school had to hire an extra secretary just to keep track of the ever-changing student body.

Research had shown that inner-city schools in Houston, Los Angeles and San Diego experienced academic improvement when they went year-round with short breaks instead of having a three-month summer vacation, Gardiner said.

Superintendent John W. Bennion added, "Kids do forget a lot during those three months. Disadvantaged students fare worse than students who come from fairly affluent homes where the summer tends to be filled with organized activities and trips and experiences that are stimulating and mind-stretching. That is not so true with inner-city children."

Whittier moved to a single-track, year-round schedule where all students are at school at the same time. They go to school for 45 days and then are off 15 days with a month's vacation in the summer between school years.

During those 15-day breaks, students having serious academic problems or gifted students wanting academic extras can spend 10 days in an interim session and still get a week's vacation. The interim sessions have extended the school year by a month.

"So far our experience at Whittier has been gratifying, even though it's only a little over a year. Student learning is showing promising gains," Bennion said.

Although it's still too early to detect test score changes, the children appear more excited about school, Gardiner reported. In fact, the year-round programs now has a waiting list and some parents who moved during the 1987-88 school year continued to transport their children to Whittier until the end of the school.

Teacher absenteeism has also dropped 20 percent, Gardiner added.

Bennion said Whittier's success has convinced Parkview and Franklin elementary schools, for academic reasons, to move to year round next summer, and Bennion Elementary School is considering the change.

But Whittier isn't the only program of the Salt Lake School District featured in the education department publication.

The publication also reports on the district's summer school for at-risk students, the career ladder program for teachers and a new plan to evaluate administrators.

The publication is an outgrowth of the Project Education Reform of the U.S. Department of Education and the National Governors Association. Two years ago, eight governors asked two school districts from each state to be part of the Project Education Reform committee.

Gov. Norm Bangerter named Bennion and Superintendent James Bergera of the Provo School District to represent Utah.

Bennion recently returned from his semiannual meeting with the group, who informally exchange information about reforms in their districts. The project will continue until 1991.

By the project's conclusion, Bennion said, the group hopes to recommend priorities necessary to bring about educational reform.