If Bethel voters once again fail to pass a school construction bond this November, we may be forced to transition to year-round schools. If that happens, it won’t be the first time the district has taken extraordinary measures to combat overcrowding.
When yet another Bethel bond failed last February — the 16th such failure since 1980 — our School Board was forced to act. The board passed Resolution 13, which set in motion the planning process for year-round schools to arrive in September 2021.
It would be a drastic measure, but it would be one that is familiar to some members of the Bethel community. Failing bonds and a rapidly growing community forced the district to implement year-round schools in 1974. That schedule continued until 1981 when the district returned to a traditional calendar.
The decision to move in this direction comes as no surprise. Our community-led Long Range Facilities Task Force discussed year-round schools in 2017 as part of their “Non-Capital Investment Strategies,” which also included increased class sizes and boundary changes. Resolution 13 also indicates the district will create new school boundaries as soon as next July.
WHY YEAR-ROUND SCHOOLS?
Some districts have adopted year-round schools with the goal of easing the “summer slide,” where students forget things they learned over summer break.
But data doesn’t support the idea that year-round school increases student learning. According to the Congressional Research Service, “year-round schools may not have a negative effect on education, (but) the data on its positive effects are inconclusive.”
Frederickson Elementary School Principal Ellen Eddy was a teacher at Elk Plain during Bethel’s first attempt at year-round school. She said the summer slide was actually worse in those years.
“With year-round school we had summer slide five times a year. We were on for nine weeks, off for three weeks and they’d slide back. On for nine weeks, off for three weeks and they’d slide back,” she said. “It was disheartening to see all the work we’d done (get wasted). It was two steps forward and three steps back.”
Implementing year-round school wouldn’t be a cost-saving measure, either. In fact, “Operating on a year-round schedule may require paying more staff … thereby increasing operational costs,” according to the CRS. With year-round schools, the buildings never get a break and buses roll all year long, which means maintenance costs also increase.
So if year round schools don’t save money and don’t increase student productivity, then why are we considering it?
Our need for year-round schools is based solely on our lack of space. Year-round schools operate on a multitrack system that eases overcrowding by staggering schedules so only 75 percent of the student population is in school at any given time.
If voters continue to shoot down construction bonds, our already-crowded schools will go so far over capacity that the district won’t be able to house every student using a traditional 10-month schedule.
The Seattle Times says Pierce County is the fastest growing county in the nation, which is due in no small part to the rising home prices in King County. The median home value in Bethel is $247,000, compared to $670,400 in King County.
New residents are flooding into all corners of Pierce County, but the growth is especially heavy in unincorporated areas, such as Spanaway and Graham.
More families means more students in the school district, which means we have to hire more teachers to keep up. Bethel is already the county’s seventh largest employer, and more teachers are being added every year.
WHAT WOULD YEAR-ROUND SCHOOLS LOOK LIKE?
It would be easy to assume that students in year-round schools spend more time in the classroom, but that’s actually not the case.
Students in the traditional 10-month calendar typically attend 180 days of school each year. Year-round schools also operate on the 180 day schedule, but they stretch the days throughout the entire year with small breaks throughout.
When Bethel adopted a year-round schedule in the 1970s, schools operated on a four-track system that went 45 days on and 15 days off. Because students went to school on different tracks, it was not uncommon for members of the same family to be in school at different times.
Dr. Steve Webb is now the Superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools, but from 1976 to 1978 he was a student at Spanaway Junior High. He and his two brothers were both in Track B, but his sister was in Track C, meaning her school breaks didn’t match up with her brothers’.
“My strongest recollection of my experience as a student at Spanaway Junior High on a multi-track system was one of disruption,” Webb said. “Dual income families trying to manage schedules — and then adding an additional layer of all of your children not being on the same schedule — that makes it increasingly complicated.”
Webb, who was involved in music and sports as a student, said year-round schooling made extracurricular activities especially difficult because he was often on his break during regular sports seasons.
Webb said he lived roughly five miles from school and often had to ride his bike to campus for games and music events.
It wasn’t any easier for teachers, who often worked unusual schedules that didn’t match with the rest of their family.
“I didn’t need childcare then, but based on what I know about it now, it must have been a nightmare,” said Eddy.
In addition to scheduling issues, year-round schools might have adverse economic consequences as well. According to Education Week, tourism and other industries that count on summer vacationers could suffer with year-round schools, and high school students might be less able to get summer jobs.
Many teachers who were in the district during the era of year-round schools say they dread the thought of returning to that system.
“I can’t even imagine it now,” said Carol Garwood, who taught at Naches Trail Elementary when Bethel was a year-round district. “It’s just phenomenally, amazingly complicated. It’s just scary.”
Election Day is November 6. More information about the bond is available here.