Leon Worden

What's year-round schooling all about?

Leon Worden · June 18, 1997

Our valley's four major high schools and four junior highs are in the William S. Hart Union High School District. Our elementary schools are in different districts. The seven elementary schools in Newhall, Valencia and Stevenson Ranch comprise the Newhall School District. The other elementary districts are Saugus and Sulphur Springs (Canyon Country). Castaic and Acton-Agua Dulce have their own districts, too.

I say this because I often hear from newcomers who understandably get confused about who's in charge of local schools.

The City of Santa Clarita does not run our schools. Elected school boards do. Each district has a different board, and each board hires a top administrator, a superintendent, to manage the district's day-to-day affairs.

In reality, school boards have power over only about ten percent of all education issues. Most things are regulated by the state and federal governments. One thing a school board can do is set the school calendar, within certain parameters. The state legislature determines the minimum number of days a child must attend school each year.

So when the Newhall school board decided earlier this month to switch from a traditional calendar (three months off in summer) to a year-round calendar a year from now, that decision affects only elementary schools, and only seven of them.

Actually, only six, since Old Orchard Elementary has a high percentage of children who don't participate in the regular English-language curriculum, and so the numbers don't warrant year-round schooling at Old Orchard.

On a traditional calendar, schools sit idle for three months of the year. That's three months when the schools could be used for something other than collecting dust.

A "multi-track" year-round calendar increases school capacity by not letting them sit idle. Here's how it works.

Let's say there are 800 children in a particular elementary school, and let's say there are four "tracks." At any given time, one-quarter of the students are out of school, or "off track," while the rest are in school. The tracks take turns. For argument's sake, let's say each track is in school for three straight months, followed by one month off. Track A might attend in January, February and March and take April off. Track B might take January off and attend in February, March and April. Track C might be off in February, and Track D in March. Each track is in school nine months of the year, but this way, each school needs only enough buildings to hold 600 students at a time, even when total school enrollment is 800.

Today, each of Newhall's schools can hold 700 or 800 students, and some even 900, uncomfortably. But if -- when -- school enrollment climbs any higher, there simply won't be room for the additional children.

Newhall's schools are already packed with portables where playground space used to be. There is no money for the new schools Newhall needs right now. From a legal standpoint, the fact that developers didn't build enough schools in the 1980s is water under the bridge. Local voters have been reluctant to pass new bond measures to pay for schools that the developers probably should have built in the first place. The state has basically said it will provide no money for new schools unless the district takes steps to increase the capacity of its existing schools -- which means going to a multi-track, year-round calendar.

The Newhall school board had its back against the wall. The decision to go year-round was not an easy one. It was the last thing some school board members wanted to do. But with no money for new schools, it was the only viable decision they could make if they want to continue to deliver high-quality education in uncrowded classrooms.

Next year sometime, the Newhall district will likely place a bond measure on the ballot, asking voters who live within the district to tax themselves for new school facilities. If the measure passes, the district may be able to build a new school, and the board may be able to reverse its decision and go back to a traditional calendar. Time will tell.

Only one thing is certain for now: We definitely have not heard the last word about year-round schooling in Newhall -- let alone any other school district.

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Avoid the mad, last-minute rush and send in your Fourth of July Parade entry forms today! For information call 297-5261. And remember, Silly String and water cannons are contraband during the parade!

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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