What Do Longer Summers Mean For Student Learning?

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Summer reading club members at the O’Kelley Memorial Library in Walton County, Ga., are delighted by Doodles the Clown. Photo by Maura Walz.

MONROE, Ga. – If you’re starting to feel that your lazy summer season is getting longer – you may be a public school student in the South. Many southern school districts are cutting back the number of days students go to school each year. But what does that mean for student learning?

Every Friday, the O’Kelley Memorial Library in Walton County, Georgia tries to lure the nearly 300 students signed up for its book club into the building to read.

The bait? A clown named Doodles.

“You guys go out and check out a million bazillion books,” the clown tells the cheering kids packed into a side room of the library.

Every week the library features performers like clowns, or storytellers, even a reptile wrangler – all aimed at getting kids excited about reading.  After Doodles wraps up, families stream out of the library armed with stacks of library books.

Reading is an important way to fill the lazy days of summer, which have been stretching longer here in Walton County. Two years ago, facing severe budget cuts, the Walton County school district lopped 20 days off the school calendar in exchange for slightly longer school days.

Click here to see an interactive map showing the length of school years in Georgia districts.

It’s a trend: Two-thirds of Georgia districts now have less than the standard 180 days. And in neighboring Alabama, a new law has forced many school districts to lengthen summers in order to preserve a wide-open tourism season.

But is it a good trend or a bad trend? That depends on who you ask. Some Walton County parents are all for it – even when adapting to the change came at a cost.

“We did have to adjust our child care, and actually it was better to just come home,” says Christina McElroy. “So it’s a little bit of a financial restraint but it’s worth it.”

“I used to teach, and I think that it’s a good idea for the money that they are saving, especially on the cost of diesel fuel for the buses,” says Cindy Helms. “And going an extra thirty minutes is not a big deal.”

Walton County superintendent Gary Hobbs says he hasn’t seen any disadvantage to the shorter calendar. The district saves a million dollars a year with the shorter school year, he says, and the district is thriving.

“Academically, we’ve seen no backwards trend at all – in CRCT, end of course tests, graduation rate was up,” Hobbs says. “We have just received no complaints about the 160 day schedule from anybody.”

But shortening the school year carries a big risk. Research shows that even a break as short as five days can take a big hit on student achievement. And some worry that longer summers could mean wider achievement gaps.

Dave Marcotte from the University of Maryland Baltimore County says that children of affluent or well-educated parents often spend their summers going to libraries and museums. But poor students usually don’t.

“And so for those  kinds of kids – and those are the kids that are gonna come from schools where the free and reduced priced meal population is larger – they’re going to be hurt more by shortening school years,” Marcotte says.

Superintendent Hobbs says that was a big worry when they shortened the calendar. But he says the shorter year pushed teachers to get more creative about supporting their students. And Walton County– like lots of Georgia districts – is tapping outside resources like the strong public library program or grants that pay for summer remedial programs.

That could be a silver lining, says Superintendent Floyd Fort, whose Stewart County schools just cut back to 150 days per year.

“The cutbacks were not in the best interest of children,” Fort says. “But that may be one good thing that comes from it — that more agencies in the community make themselves available to offer assistance.”

Not all schools are as fortunate. The superintendent of Wilkes County schools, Rosemary Caddell, says she worries her students don’t have opportunities outside of school to get academic support. So her district cut everywhere but the number of school days.

“We went through our budget line by line, item by item finding ways to do things other than cut the school year,” Caddell says.

Shortening the school year is not a decision to be taken lightly. But in Walton County, Hobbs says even if the district could re-gain the money lost to budget cuts, adding more days back to the school year wouldn’t be where he would spend it.

“I would use it first to hire the graduation coaches back, the instructional coaches, and strengthen the academic support for our teachers before I did anything else,” he says.

In other words, Hobbs says, shorter school years may be here to stay.

Molly McNally contributed reporting to this story. 

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