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A Kansas City school adopts year-round learning to help combat COVID learning loss

A student (seen from behind) in a classroom raises his hand while a teacher wearing a yellow sweatshirt stands at the front of the room with her hands on her hips. She is smiling and standing in front of a large TV screen with class instructions on it.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Ann Fontes works with her fourth-grade class at Gordon Parks Elementary School.

Officials at Gordon Parks Elementary say the calendar change may put "a crimp" summer plans, but it will allow them to support students throughout the year.

A trip to the beach, a day at the pool, an outing to an amusement park. That’s what you’d expect to be on any kid’s list of activities they’re looking forward to on summer break.

But Kriscynthia Palacios says her children are looking forward to spending more time in the classroom this summer, and less time piled into her car as she runs her roofing business.

“My 8-year-old son, he goes, ‘At least I don't have to sweat in the car. At least I could go and be with my friends in school and learn,’” Palacios says.

Palacios has three children who attend Gordon Parks Elementary School in Kansas City. Starting in June, the charter school will add 31 days of school to its calendar, allowing students to attend class year-round.

Palacios says the updated schedule — still rare among Missouri schools — will make it easier to support her family without worrying about child care during the summer break.

“Throughout the summer, they don't do anything but get in trouble in the house and break things,” Palacios says. “While they’re in school, instead, their brains are working. And they're learning more for their future.”

Over the summer, students are thought to lose some of the learning they gained during the year — a phenomenon known as the “summer slide.”

Kent Yocum, principal of Gordon Parks, says year-round schooling could fill that summer gap and help students catch up on learning loss attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We won't have to spend the time of that first month of school relearning the processes of school, because it will just be a couple weeks,” Yocum says. “We also won't have to spend that time relearning the things that were lost over summer.”

School administrators say the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need to support student needs all year long, beyond academics. Many of the school’s students live in higher poverty areas, face housing insecurity and have experienced trauma.

A man wearing a blue sweatshirt holds his right hand up in a "high-five" gesture toward a female student who is in line with other students who can be seen filing into a door way.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Third-grade teacher Sean Klippel greets students as they head for breakfast at Gordon Parks Elementary School. Free meals will now be provided to students through the summer.

Yocum says students aren’t just learning at Gordon Parks Elementary; they also have access to therapists, family advocates, free meals and a family emergency fund — and they need those things all year long.

“If we're not meeting the needs of not only the kids, but their parents, then we're going to struggle with the academic part of it," Yocum says.

Yocum spearheaded the schedule change at Gordon Parks, inspired by his previous experience with the North Kansas City School District.

He was part of a team that developed a year-long schedule at two of the district’s elementary schools, Winnwood and Crestview. Around 80% of students at both schools were on free and reduced lunch and underperformed in reading and math compared to the rest of the district.

Winnwood Elementary principal Leah Copeland says that since her school moved to a year-long schedule in 2015, she’s seen an improvement in student achievement and emotional growth.

She also says the new schedule got students back into the classroom quicker during the COVID pandemic and gave them additional school time to catch up.

“We've put a lot of interventions in place that we're able to do 12 months of the year because of the fact that our calendar works in that way,” Copeland says. “And so that has helped us get kids moving quicker.”

Advocates for year-round school say the pandemic has sparked more interest in this alternative model.

David Hornak, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education, says he’s seen a significant rise in inquiries from school boards and school leaders around the country.

“The school leaders that are out there are wondering, ‘Is this model a way to help recover some of that unfinished learning that has occurred?’” Hornak says.

Still, he says there’s not a “tremendous” increase in schools moving to this model, possibly because changing a longtime, established model is difficult.

“We as adults continue to say, 'We want a long summer intermission so our kids can play outside and they can have the same summers that we had in the 70s, 80s and 90s,'” Hornak says.

Ground-level photo that shows a pair of legs walking in foreground while young students in background walk the other direction in a school hallway.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Students at Gordon Parks Elementary School walk in the hallway during an early morning break.

Yocum says he understands concerns about families not having enough break time, but families at Gordon Parks typically aren’t taking extended vacations anyway.

He says that staff and students will still be getting a break. It will just be shorter and spread out over the course of the year. Plus, he says the school is looking into offering experiences that the students wouldn't normally get, including trips to the pool or park and experiential learning.

“We're kind of looking at what's best for our kids. If they had more of those opportunities in their neighborhoods with swimming pools that were actually going to be open or close by, if they had libraries that were easy to access, then it may be a little bit different situation,” Yocum says.

Kirsten Lipari-Braman, CEO of Gordon Parks, says the new learning model was made possible by COVID-relief funding, which will help pay for additional transportation and the extra hours teachers will be working.

She says teachers were initially divided about the schedule and concerned about their summer plans. But after the school offered flexibility on vacations, all the teachers said they intended to return for the school year.

“They are phenomenal, committed teachers who they see, yes, this is going to kind of run a crimp and going on in June. But man, this is really in the best interest of our kids. And so they are embracing it,” Lipari-Braman says.

Lipari-Braman says the school’s board plans to stick with the new schedule even when COVID dollars run out. Because if it’s working for their kids, she says, they’ll continue it for as long as they can.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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