Robert Price

Saturday, Aug 17 2013 11:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Students, get ready to start your brains

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    Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By Robert Price

The first day of school is always a mix of wide-ranging and contradictory emotions. Excitement, anxiety, anticipation, dread. It's a return to the familiar, a reminder that one belongs, like it or not, to a distinct community. It's also a road marker, a gauge of passing time -- not only for students but for parents, too, watching their own lives move ever closer to the next stage.

There's a special kind of charm attached the day, made possible by the long break from the classroom that precedes it.

Summer vacation. Those words conjure up bare feet and water slides, family vacations and sleeping in. But on Monday, the first day of school for most of Bakersfield and Kern County, it will represent something else, at least to the teachers who'll be dealing with its ramifications: summer learning loss -- the erosion of academic skills, particularly in reading and math, that occurs when kids turn off their brains for an extended period of time.

Given the way we've arranged the academic calendar, summer learning loss is practically inevitable. We can hope Johnny wil read a book during the long break, and we might even bribe him to do so, but few parents have the time or inclination to stand over a kid all summer and monitor his degree of engagement in suggested literature.

School ought to be a year-round thing. Attend school for nine weeks, take three off and then come back for nine more. That's the most popular schedule in the U.S. for schools that have abandoned the traditional model. Some school districts organize their calendars based on 12 weeks in/four weeks off or 18 weeks in/six weeks off, but in all cases kids still get at least 180 days of instruction each academic year and the same holiday breaks as ever. Family vacations fit into those three- or four-week chunks of free time nicely.

I mentioned the idea of year-round school to my teenage son last week and he actually liked it. Ben would have hated the idea a few years ago. Any other reaction would have conflicted with the popular adolescent delusion that summer vacation is an essential institution, and depriving kids of it is like canceling Christmas. We all know it's three months of oppressive boredom disguised as freedom, but it's their boredom to use as they choose (for the most part). After 12 weeks of video games and cheesy game shows, Ben now accepts that fact. Despite the pressure, despite the homework, despite the 5:30 a.m. wakeup call, he is ready to go back.

But year-round school -- also known, more accurately, as balanced-year school -- isn't just about mitigating kids' boredom. It has measurable academic benefits. For example, students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in math over the summer. The drain is especially evident among low-income children, who typically don't have the same summer learning opportunities as those available to wealthier kids. Year-round school helps close that learning gap -- and in a place like Kern County, where poverty is deep and entrenched, that would matter.

Albuquerque, N.M., has had year-round schools for about 20 years. "The schools that have these schedules absolutely adore it," associate school superintendent Raquel Reedy said in an interview with Albuquerque's KOB-TV last week. In rural Sanilac County, Mich., teachers at one school were bragging that after just one week of instruction it was evident they were presiding over the most high-achieving classes they'd ever seen. "I told them that's because they've only been out of school for three weeks" instead of three months, as would have been the case in previous years, Director of Instruction Julie Western told the Detroit News earlier this month.

Yes, the first day of school has a special feeling when it follows three months of down time, but the first day back following a three-week break has something going for it, too: refreshed students who don't need to jump-start their brains. Is year-round school worth talking about in Bakersfield? I'd say so.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com. (@stubblebuzz)

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