TAWN PARENT Commentary: Playing a game I may not want to win

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I’m playing the lottery. But even if I win, I might lose. The stakes are high. It’s a lottery that will have a major impact on my family for the next decade.

But this lottery isn’t about money. It’s about education. It’s the Indianapolis Public Schools magnet school lottery. Families submit their choices in the fall, and by the first of March they find out if they have won the right to attend any of their favorite schools.

But there’s a problem with my top choices, the only magnet schools within six miles of my home with highquality programs and strong parental support. One has a year-round calendar and the other is planning to make the switch in the fall, er, the summer of 2006. The charter school in my neighborhood also operates year-round.

A product of IPS, I believe firmly in the value of public schooling. And the Key Learning Community and the Center for Inquiry offer excellent, innovative programming. But do those benefits outweigh the sacrifices my prospective kindergartener and the rest of our family would have to make?

Since no high schools in the area other than Key offer year-round schedules, most families with a year-round student eventually have to juggle two radically different school calendars. Since my stepdaughter is on a traditional schedule, my family falls into this category. Such families deserve more flexibility in scheduling a summer vacation than the five weeks allotted by year-round schools.

A year-round schedule, which typically includes threeweek breaks in the fall, winter and spring, also leaves many families struggling for ways to occupy their children during times of the year when the weather tends to be worse and activity options fewer than during the summer.

I’m all for having choices. If there is sufficient interest, converting some schools to a year-round schedule is fine. But they should be geographically dispersed enough that families can attend traditional-calendar magnets without having to drive across town.

Children deserve a summer that lasts more than a few weeks. They deserve long, lazy days of playing in the sprinkler, building treehouses and chasing lightning bugs through the twilight (a.k.a. informal learning that is just as valuable as the textbook variety).

Even traditional calendars eat too far into the summer. Kids are now going to school in the dog days of mid-August, despite the fact that many IPS schools still don’t have air-conditioning.

There’s an unfortunate method to this madness: the relentless drive to improve test scores. IPS announced in November that two of its lowest-performing middle schools will convert to a year-round schedule and add an hour of instruction per day. That’s the equivalent of almost six extra weeks in the classroom. That doesn’t include the remediation that low achievers at year-round schools often are strongly encouraged to participate in during school breaks, or “intersessions.”

What about down time? Are we robbing children of their childhoods for the sake of higher test scores? Granted, my son probably has opportunities to spend his time more fruitfully than most IPS students, about 80 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches. But all kids deserve time to be kids. And focusing too much on the most disadvantaged youngsters is likely to drive even more middle-class families out of the system. IPS needs its remaining middle-class families to provide balance and parental support.

Clearly, IPS faces tough challenges. But research on the success of year-round education is inconclusive. Some folks say children benefit from more frequent breaks and forget less than they do over a long summer. Others say kids struggle with all the transitions in and out of school mode and quickly recover from any “summer slide.” We’ve got to look beyond overvalued test scores to find solutions that don’t sacrifice quality of life for dubious attempts at quality education.

Moving Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress from the fall back to the spring would be a step in the right direction. HB 1134, which has passed the Indiana House of Representatives Education Committee, would accomplish that, as would four other bills before the General Assembly this year. So help from the Legislature could be on the way.

Consider this excerpt from a letter written by a co-president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at the Center for Inquiry:

“[My children] play hard and sleep well in the summer. … Our children might score higher on standardized tests as a result of attending school year-round, but that has never been a priority when raising happy, well-rounded people. I’m convinced that much of a child’s education occurs outside of the classroom, and memories are made in the summer.”

As I ambivalently await the results of this all-important lottery, I say, “Amen!”

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.

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