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Are year-round schools in Michigan's future?

From Pontiac to Baldwin, a number of Michigan public school districts spent the fall preparing for a big change.
Spurred on by $2 million in Michigan Department of Education grant funding, the schools will pilot transitioning to a year-round school calendar.
But for students, parents and staff at Horizon Elementary in Holt, Mich., year-round school is nothing new, and all groups have come to one agreement: there are definite benefits.
Operating on a year-round calendar since it opened 21 years ago, Horizon Elementary implemented this year-round system – also referred to as a balanced school calendar or balanced schedule - long before the current movement the calendar is now seeing.
David Hornak, principal of Horizon Elementary and an advocate for the balanced schedule, sees no end in sight.
"This is the idea of the future and I believe it's going to accrue some rapid growth. It's good for kids, good for teachers and it's good for families."
It's pretty hard to argue with that.
The current traditional calendar, still most prevalent in schools nationally, is based around an outdated time of America as a primarily agrarian society. The year-round schooling concept, though finding its footing through the 1900s, finally caught national recognition in April of 1972 when the House of Representatives held a hearing on the year-round school concept. From there, numerous bills in support of the balanced schedule have been debated both at the state and federal levels.
The year-round movement has gained some serious steam in the last decade, with 3,059 year-round public schools in 2000 growing to 3,700 nationwide in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Though popularity for the system has increased, Hornak says he still runs into what he refers to as the "urban legend" of the year-round system – people believe children go to school more on a year-round schedule than kids on a traditional operating system.
"That's not the case," Hornak said. "We're using the time we have been given, but we're using it more efficiently."
In fact, Horizon Elementary students and staff do get a summer break. A six week break commences the last week of June and extends through the early parts of August. From there, shorter breaks are sprinkled between natural holidays and traditional time off such as spring break.
"The scattered breaks give teachers the ability to look at where they've been and where they're going," Hornak said. "It allows both students and teachers to recharge and reenergize, which leads to enthusiastic classrooms and energetic children which leads to student achievement."
The system seems to be making parents of students enthusiastic as well – Horizon has a waiting list at many of its grade levels.
In some cases, a balanced schedule allows for convenient flexibility in the school year calendar.
"Part of this system is about finding out what your community really wants," Hornak said. "People are worried about when to take the breaks and I tell them, 'that's up to you guys.' It's another benefit to this calendar, it's up to the community to establish that."
Aside from the flexibility in scheduling, Hornak, along with administrators nationwide, have seen positive results in the most crucial areas of schooling, including higher attendance rates than traditional counterparts and improved academic achievement.
While Hornak's Horizon Elementary has been operating on the balanced schedule for more than two decades, Beecher Community Schools, a district located just north of Flint, Mich., adopted the system just two years ago. The district saw improvement in several areas almost immediately.
Dr. Josha Talison, superintendent of Beecher Community Schools, highlights two major changes in the district after converting to the balanced calendar: an improvement in academic achievement and a decrease in disciplinary referrals. Beecher's Dailey Elementary is now a Michigan Reward School and the high schools have risen out of the bottom five percent.
In order to obtain this kind of success, Talison recommends schools considering the leap from a traditional plan to a year-round program do their homework.
"Go slow to go fast," Talison said. "Meet with anyone you can, visit other school districts that are already operating on a balanced calendar. You need to talk to the parents and students of those schools to gain an understanding."
Talison recognizes the change was rapid and that an initial reluctance can evolve into communal support.
Some were reluctant at first, he explains, "but after seeing the change and growth they've come to support it."
And that support may ultimately provide more of Michigan's students access to a year-round education.
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