In Utah it tends not to be an academic issue but a space issue. —State Office of Education spokesman Mark Peterson
WEST JORDAN — While most of their peers are out and about enjoying the summer sun, thousands of elementary students headed back to the classroom this week for the start of year-round school.
"I think it's not fair," said Ellie Bearden, a fourth-grade student at Daybreak Elementary in the Jordan School District. "I'm already sick of it."
Thursday was Daybreak's second day of school and Ellie and her classmate Lydia Owen both said they'd rather not be in class during the summer. But without skipping a beat, they both agreed it's nice to have a three-week break every two months.
"That makes up for the time when we go to school," Lydia said.
Jordan is one of three Utah school districts that hold elementary schools all year, a small minority that shrunk further when the Salt Lake and Granite districts recently abandoned the format. Salt Lake just finished its first year with all elementary schools on a traditional schedule and in the fall, Granite's 14 remaining year-round schools will transition to a nine-month format.
Within the districts themselves, individual schools use one format over the other. In Davis County, the number of year-round schools has gone from 17 to five in the last decade, district spokeswoman Shauna Lund said. The decision is based on student growth and while the trend in Davis has moved away from year-round schools, Wednesday saw one more elementary — Foxboro — opening its doors compared to last summer.
"In Utah it tends not to be an academic issue but a space issue," said State Office of Education spokesman Mark Peterson.
Increased transportation, utility and custodial costs drive up the price tag on running a year-round school. But in high growth areas, those costs are offset by millions of dollars in taxpayer savings in the form of new schools that don't need to be built to house a student population.
"It comes down to economics," Jordan spokesman Steve Dunham said. "It saves our taxpayers tens of millions of dollars."
In Jordan, 19 year-round elementaries have saved the district from building 13 additional schools, spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf said. At an average construction cost of $16 million per school, the year-round format has saved taxpayers more than $200 million.
"We have to make the best use of every school," Riesgraf said. "When we do year-round we get 25 percent more capacity."
But in other districts where student growth is stable or even stagnant, year-round schools represent a district expense without any definitive academic benefit. Salt Lake School District spokesman Jason Olsen said that when the school board was considering ending year-round school last year, it was estimated that the district would save $128,000 annually by having all schools on a unified calendar.
Olsen said the district started holding year-round schools 20 years ago after the district received a grant to see if the schedule would improve academic performance.
"Unlike most areas, we didn't do it for space," Olsen said.
He said that after comparing test scores, students in the traditional schedule were scoring slightly higher. The district was also spending extra money to continue the year-round schedule, which included the cost of holding multiple teacher training days to accommodate year-round staff instead of a single session in the summer.
Olsen said parents and teachers preferred the year-round schedule. He said most parents understood the switch was a cost saving measure, but teachers were not won over as easily.
"The teachers did express some reluctance," Olsen said. "They were convinced that was beneficial to students."
This fall, Granite School District will undergo a similar transition. The district began year-round schools about 20 years ago during a high growth period and it is estimated that over the years the decision saved the district $25 million in administrative costs and another $80 million in schools that weren't built, district spokesman Ben Horsley said.
But in recent years, the number of students in the district has stabilized at around 67,000 students, Horsley said. If the district had elected to build more facilities and keep the traditional schedule, students today would be attending half-empty schools.
He also said there was no indication that the schedule was helping students perform better in class and by ending year-round schools, the district will see an annual savings of $900,000.
Besides the cost, Horsley said year-round schools can be particularly difficult for families with multiple children. The district held an online survey and more than 70 percent of parents supported moving to a traditional schedule, he said.
"We've looked at this from all angles to see if there was any advantage to keeping year-round schools," Horsley said. "We felt confident moving forward, knowing we could adjust our boundaries if necessary."
But many people, namely teachers and administrators at year-round schools, see an advantage in the longer school year. Daybreak Elementary Principal Doree Strauss said with a traditional calendar, teachers spend time reviewing old information in the fall and by spring are burned out and "holding on for dear life."
"I think it favors the student side because it gives them the breaks but they're not losing the information," she said. "For planning purposes it's nice too, because they can plan for a nine-week block."
Ann Noble, a fourth-grade teacher at Daybreak, agreed. She also mentioned burnout and said she likes having breaks throughout the year.
"As a teacher, I love year-round," she said. "I don't think I'd ever want to go back to traditional."