While current data remains inconclusive, K–12 year-round calendars — or balanced school calendars — may appeal to districts seeking academic recovery relief.
Year-round schooling, also called a ‘balanced calendar’ system, has grown remarkably in the United States for K-12 establishments, over the past three decades, from a total enrollment of around 400,000 students in the mid-1980s to over 2 million by the early 2000s. Despite this growth, some districts have since abandoned year-round calendars and returned to the traditional model. Now as schools manage post-pandemic learning recovery, the topic of year-round schooling has, yet again, circled back into the K–12 landscape.
With many competing perspectives on the topic, it may be difficult to understand what’s best for your students, families, and educators. District leaders will want to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of year-round calendars before adopting such a change. Here are some evidence-based considerations when determining if a K-12 year-round calendar would meet your district’s financial, academic, or cultural needs.
How Does a Year-Round or Balanced Calendar Work?
The term year-round or balanced school calendar, in the K-12 landscape, is defined as a modified educational schedule that groups instructional days into smaller units with more frequent breaks throughout the year. In most cases, year-round schedules don’t add days of instruction to the approximately 180 days typical in a traditional school year.
Single-Track vs. Multi-Track Year-Round Systems
There are two main models of the year-round calendar: single-track and multi-track. Both models may provide their own benefits, in different contexts.
- A single-track structure provides a single calendar for a more continuous period of instruction. All students and faculty follow the same curriculum and vacation schedule. Schools typically adopt single-track year-round calendars to lessen K-12 academic recovery challenges.
- Multi-track year-round education enables a school to make greater use of its facilities by staggering the attendance schedules of the students, teachers, and staff by groups so that one takes their break while the others study and work. This model is most often used to address overcrowding or resource management.
Benefits of K-12 Year-Round Schooling
While a major motivation for adopting a year-round calendar involves addressing academic recovery and promoting stability to aid student well-being, funding typically remains a concern. The California Department of Education’s Year-Round Education Program Guide and American University’s School of Education highlight some potential cost savings of year-round education. Districts should weigh their own financial standings against these findings to evaluate the following potential financial benefits:
- Reduced Facilities Costs: Multi-track models are a promising way to expand facilities for higher enrollment, without spending substantial amounts of capital funding. For example, in a four-track system in a year-round calendar of 1,000 K-12 students, only 3 groups of about 330 students would occupy a campus at any given time. Moreover, this structure leaves room to boost enrollment by 25% with little financial investment. Schools could also avoid costs of facility repair resulting from extended periods of shut down, including vandalism.
- Potential Efficiencies for Employees and Families: Intermittent breaks may reduce teacher burn out, reducing the need for substitute teachers. Administrators may also find it easier to manage benefits that are usually calculated on a 12-month basis. In addition, some families may also benefit from fewer childcare costs.
Student Achievement Gains
Beyond financial benefits, advocates for year-round schedules argue that it can improve student achievement. They suggest that such systems reduce teacher burnout and decrease the likelihood that students will become stressed, act out, or drop out, leading to better student retention and achievement rates. In Virginia, one teacher in Hopewell City Public Schools said they feel relief when working in a year-round calendar, because there is always another break just around the corner.
When considering a balanced calendar as a better way to serve vulnerable students, some advocates have made the case that year-round schooling improves chances of success for low-income students, and/or English language learners. Some studies on COVID-19 recovery issues estimate that some students lost one third of a school years’ worth of education to the peak of the pandemic. Many families lack the resources to afford private means of bridging this gap. In an Associated Press feature of two Virginia schools and their process of considering year-round schools, many Spanish-speaking parents spoke positively of the prospect, wanting their children to better their English reading and writing skills.
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Drawbacks of a Year-Round School System
In contrast to the benefits, a year-round calendar system can also bring several new complications to a district’s financial and organizational state, and its community. The increased cost of implementing a K-12 balanced calendar system appears to be modest. However, it has clearly discouraged some schools from employing such a system. The primary costs are remedial or supplemental instruction offered during intersession breaks, but existing research makes note of several other areas where year-round education requires greater resources, depending on the type of schedule implemented, including:
- Transition Costs: Enacting such a substantial change within a school takes a lot of teamwork, research, and planning, so the cost of administrative planning and staff development may be high. In some cases, year-round calendars may require outside consultation or overtime.
- Operational Costs: Some schools will need to expand their office and administrative staff. Many will also have to cover increased utilities, maintenance, and transportation costs.
Community Related Drawbacks
- Family Scheduling Challenges: Some argue that year-round schedules place a burden on families due to more irregular vacation schedules. Vacations become even harder to schedule in a multi-track calendar where different children within the same family could end up on different schedules. High school students may also find it harder to earn their own money as they will have fewer summer employment opportunities.
- Employee Impacts: Organizational difficulties for teachers and staff seem to arise more frequently with multi-track versus single-track calendars. Because school facilities are being used by different groups at separate times, teachers must often become mobile. The lack of a long summer vacation can also prevent teachers from enrolling in professional development courses.
- Extracurricular Activity Obstacles: For single-track schedules, extracurricular events may sometimes occur during intersession breaks, which requires advance planning by administrators for transportation and other needs. However, multi-track calendars pose more substantial scheduling complications. For example, an individual participating in sports in a multi-track school may have other members of their team on different tracks, making it hard to coordinate practice sessions. Additionally, even if students within a year-round system can coordinate their schedules, they may still be out-of-sync with other schools in a district, potentially posing obstacles in terms of scheduling extracurricular competitions.
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K–12 School Calendar Best Practices and Bias
Overall, contemporary research on the benefits of year-round schooling remains inconclusive. However, COVID-era studies suggest that a year-round, or balanced calendar, may be particularly effective in lower income or multilingual communities, or communities with limited English proficiency. Anecdotal evidence also suggests shorter, intermittent breaks throughout the entire year support teacher well-being.
Employee and community support are crucial when considering any district scheduling changes. With over 50% of teachers planning to leave the profession sooner than intended, many districts cannot afford to make decisions that may result in more teacher loss.
Additionally, district leadership must consider how, political and personal vantage points influence attitudes toward year-round schooling. For instance, families who have the means to attain private academic assistance or take extended vacations may have different priorities than those with less expendable income. Districts should utilize survey research and townhall-style meetings to understand diverse perspectives, ensuring all parents and caregivers have opportunities to be included in the conversation.
Financially, some K-12 districts may find multi-track year-round calendars appealing, to maximize the use of available facilities and reduce the need for new construction. However, additional administrative and instructional costs, such as intersession support for struggling students, should be factored into any financially based decision to adopt year-round schooling. These additional costs, however, may be mitigated by federal funding available to schools within low-income communities.
This balance of factors explains why year-round schooling has yet to become a popular choice within the K–12 landscape. The ambivalence in data and perspectives highlights the unique nature of this issue. However, unique circumstances may require unconventional solutions. School leaders shouldn’t entirely disregard the benefits of year-round schooling for certain communities in need of strategic reform.