MI Schools Seek Balance Between Summer & Study

Jul 24, 2018

For most kids in Michigan, there’s still plenty of summer left before the school bell rings.  Public school students generally return in about five weeks.  But for at least two schools in mid-Michigan, the first day comes next week.


In late July, you can hear the sound of summer echoing through playgrounds and parks.

For most kids, back to school is in the back of their minds.  After all, there’s a lot of fun left to be had.  Officially, Michigan’s public schools still begin after Labor Day, though in recent years some districts have opted to resume classes by the last week of August.

For generations, Americans have relished the traditional three month break between school years. 

But for a growing number of students...summer is getting shorter.

“Times have changed,” says Holt Superintendent David Hornak.  He’s also the executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education. 

Hornak is a champion of what’s known as a “balanced calendar.”  The summer break only lasts half as long.  There are shorter periods of instruction, each lasting about 45 days.  The schedule is interspersed with two vacation weeks in the fall, winter and spring.

In Holt, two elementary schools -- Horizon and Sycamore – follow a balanced calendar.

Kellie Flaminio sent her two children to Horizon, and she says it reaped economic and academic benefits.  Rather than covering three months of summer child care, Flaminio says she could spread out those costs over the school year. 

She says the balanced calendar also fit her son’s special education needs.

“He very much needs that structure, so having that shorter summer kind of helps with that aspect of things,” Flaminio says.  “Also, it’s awesome for vacations because we can go on vacation on off times...so that’s another added perk.”                                 

Horizon is entering its 24th year on a balanced calendar.  Hornak says it’s curtailed a situation all teachers face: helping students recover skills once mastered by May that have slipped by September.

“The research says that those who are serving students on the traditional calendar spend 20 to 40 days re-teaching,” Hornak explains.  “We know that our balanced calendar faculty spend a day or two reviewing the curriculum from the year prior, they do a little behavior review, and then they’re good to go.”                       

Still, balanced calendar schools have their skeptics.

“I’m a little surprised to hear that it would take 30 to 40 days of review to get children back to where they were,” says University of Texas-Austin sociologist Paul von Hippel.  He’s done a lot of study on the summer slide...and he’s found younger students maintain pretty well.

“The average child actually does not lose ground over the summer, at least in the elementary years,” he says.  “They tend to go sideways or even improve a little bit...although certainly more slowly than they do during the school year.”              

In Holt, Hornak tried an experiment.  During the last week of school, he gave both his balanced and traditional calendar students a standardized math pre-test.  Hornak says he chose math because research shows that’s the subject most impacted by summer slide. Then, he administered a post-test during their first week back.

“The results were dramatic,” he asserts.  “My balanced calendar students certainly did better on the post-test than their counterparts did.  I could then make the case that they retained more mathematical information.”  

Those findings seem to somewhat justify von Hippel’s point about minimal learning loss in the elementary grades.  However, von Hippel says, don’t expect balanced calendar schools to deliver huge gains in test scores.  He studied about a thousand schools in California and North Carolina that switched from a traditional to a balanced calendar. 

The results, he says, have not been inspiring.

“Typically, average test scores do not go up, test scores don’t go up for disadvantaged students; children on free lunch, for example, who are most vulnerable to summer learning loss,” von Hippel says.  “And my own research shows that although students do, of course, learn more during the summer because they’re in school for part of the summer, they learn less during the rest of the year.”       

The balanced calendar debate continues in Michigan.  Districts such as Grand Ledge are gathering public input and weighing their options. 

In the meantime, teachers at Horizon and Sycamore Elementary in Holt will soon find out how much their students have retained this summer.  Their school year begins August 1.