A 64-student private school in Caseyville is ready to do something few, if any, other schools have done. Starting June 1, it will offer a full year, about 230 days, of class for kindergartners.
“We’ve got to give them so much more,” said Principal Anita Gajewski, of Legacy Christian Academy, of its decision to add 50 school days to the existing calendar. “We decided our kids could have an edge if they went to school more days a year.”
This year, only kindergarten will have the summer academic instruction; Legacy expects to expand the year-round program to other grades in the future.
Educators elsewhere said it could work well, if it’s done right.
“Overall, absolutely, we think kids should be engaged in enriching and innovative activities,” said Monica Logan of the National Summer Learning Association. She is the vice president of program and systems quality for the organization, whose history includes being part of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University.
“We also want to caution that folks should use these opportunities to innovate, and bring community partnerships and really move the needle,” she said.
A doctor of education at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville said she would be supportive of a program that supported the “whole child.”
“If they’re doing it to push school readiness, I’d have some concerns,” said Elizabeth Sherwood, an associate professor in early childhood. “Is their focus promoting academic readiness, or dispositions for learning?”
Sherwood said a crucial component of child development through third grade is play in learning, including “complex play” such as acting out a story.
“It’s that complex play, ‘Stay in character or you ruin the game,’ that develops the skills of self-regulation. ... We’re finding those skills are just as important to success,” she said.
Parents should look for opportunity for play in the classroom, Sherwood said. “Was there a block area, or do children spend all their time in desks?”
A balance of play and academics is the goal, Gajewski said, with the teachers mixing in more field trips and hands-on learning activities throughout the year.
The current kindergarten class is all about recess and play, even as their principal touted their cursive writing, math and reading abilities.
“My favorite thing is playing with toys,” said 5-year-old Terryl Graham. “Potato Head, ping pong, felt board, calendar ...”
The class is made up of 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds. Gajewski said students are screened and placed according to their level, not their age.
“You can’t have children that are gifted sorted by age,” she said.
Gajewski touts the school’s academic record, saying TerraNova tests show Legacy’s students “academically are already always above public school; we are average with Christian schools,” she said.
Many schools that have year-round classes really stretch nine months of instruction over the 12 months, Gajewski said. Legacy will be different, it will add instructional days and otherwise maintain the school calendar. Summer instruction — nearly 50 days — will be optional and will cost the same $415 per month that parents already pay, she said.
There are no schools in the metro-east using a year-round school calendar now, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. However, ISBE does not necessarily oversee private schools; it does if the school makes the request, but Legacy has not, said ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus.
The state requires 176 days of classroom instruction per year; additional days on the calendar are allowed.
Calendar based in agrarian roots
“If we’re truly educating children for their future, why would we not teach them year-round?” Gajewski said. “They’ll learn more math, grammar and science and then be able to apply those things. That will be the fun thing about the summer program, we’ll be able to integrate all these summer things with it.”
A former public school educator concurred, saying the basis for the 9-month year was the country’s agrarian society.
“You can’t argue it; research would definitely say an extension of the school year would help,” said Jim Rosborg, former superintendent of Belleville District 118 who is now director of masters of education at McKendree University.
“But this country, at this time, isn’t able to take that on,” he said, referencing the state’s delayed payments to public schools. “I would hate to see an extension of the school year just for those with the monetary ability to do so.”
Gajewski said about a third of last year’s students had their educations funded by scholarships, and that this year’s “are a bit less,” but did not provide details of the scholarships. She says her students come from all over the area, including Fairview Heights, Centreville and East St. Louis.
Rashonda Graham, of Fairview Heights, will be sending her second-grade son, Rashad, to the school this summer for a mix of academics and day camp.
“Summer camp is $125 a week. It would actually be cheaper to send him to school, and he’ll get more out of it,” she said.
Gajewski — known as “Mrs. G” in the school — said the year-round classes are not a recent idea for the school, and several parents are supportive of the idea.
“The goal is to allow parents the opportunity to allow education to continue,” Gajewski said.
At least one parent did have some initial hesitation about the idea, although ultimately she signed her son up for the summer program. Ariel Jones, of Centreville, said her son would normally be with family over the summer break. Jones said the family tries to keep her 5-year-old boy engaged, “but I cannot pretend at all that I’m a teacher; that is not my strength.”
“I didn’t want him to feel like he didn’t have a summer break, or he was going to be burned out,” she said of her initial reaction. “As a family and play therapist, I know how important it is for kids to have down time and not have structured activities.”
But Caleb himself is enthusiastic about the idea, Jones said. He’s come to love reading, and Jones understands that the amount of instruction and playtime will remain balanced.
“Over the past few months he’s gotten really excited about reading and some of the activities they’re doing with reading,” she said. “I think the idea of continuing to do that with his teacher, he’s excited about.”
She thinks “he’ll get the best of both worlds” this way. Gajewski had great expectations for Caleb, saying he could test into first grade over the summer, or even second grade.
“I’m excited. It’s 10 extra weeks of school. Just how far can they go in 10 weeks?”
Gajewski says the idea of extended classes stemmed from the knowledge loss that children experience after extended breaks, also referred to as “summer slide.” Legacy teachers even notice it in January, when students come back from just two weeks off school, she says, and teachers spend days reviewing concepts already learned.
Legacy is a Christian-based school that largely follows A Beka curriculum in the younger grades and Bob Jones University courses for older students. The school started more than 20 years ago with four students, including Gajewski’s, and now offers instruction through ninth grade.
Public schoolchildren also can fall victim to the summer slide, said Rosborg.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “When I was superintendent, teachers probably spent the first three weeks on diagnostics to see what the loss leader was.”
Rosborg said the loss depended on a number of factors, including parental involvement and new students moving into the district.
“I really wish parents would rethink that whole idea that ‘my child needs three months of vacation,’” Gajewski said. “Any person that has children knows that after two weeks of summer break, they’re bored.”