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City school plans switch to year-round schedule

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - One private school in Charleston is jumping ahead of the crowd on a popular item on the state's education reform agenda.  

The Charleston Montessori School will switch to a year-round calendar in the fall of 2014, echoing efforts in the education community to give public schools more freedom to follow such a calendar.

"It's about time for us to take a step forward as a West Virginia school and not wait for anyone to pull us along," said Paige Payne, one of two directors at the school.

Charleston Montessori can do that because it's a private school - it's not subject to the restrictions in state code and Board of Education policy that force public schools to apply for a waiver to enact year-round calendars, also known as "balanced" calendars.

Moves to loosen those restrictions, giving local school boards more flexibility to plan their calendars, have been a major part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform package that is currently working its way through the state Senate.

In his State of the State address, Tomblin said he wouldn't force all schools to adopt a balanced calendar but would clear the way for them to consider it.

State education officials have been largely supportive of the plan, and Payne echoed their praise when she outlined the reasoning behind Charleston Montessori's switch. They want to minimize burnout among students and teachers, provide for a full 180 days of instruction and reduce "summer slide" - the academic losses students suffer after a three-month summer vacation.

"We hope that it makes it an even richer experience for our children than it is now," Payne said.

In fact, academic research on the subject shows mixed results, with reliable studies hard to come by. Generally in the education community, it's agreed that low-income and special education students garner some benefits from a year-round calendar, but those benefits may be nearly lost on their more advantaged peers.

Anecdotally, though, the balanced calendar is a hit in the local schools that use it.

Steve Knighton, principal at Piedmont Elementary in the East End, which has been using a year-round calendar for years and helped Charleston Montessori officials research the switch.

"I don't know why nobody listens to me when I say it's the best thing since sliced bread," he said. "Maybe if one school like Montessori pulls it off, it will let everybody else know how good it is."

The transition at Charleston Montessori, which already follows an untraditional model and has fewer than 60 students, may be easier than it would be at larger, public schools with a traditional calendar.

But Knighton said that in any setting, most of the common complaints about a year-round model fade away after implementation: Sports teams and extracurricular groups quickly adapt, the school air conditioning holds out through the summer, and kids soon come to like the shorter breaks on a more regular basis.

Piedmont students spend nine weeks in school at a time, and then take three weeks off; Charleston Montessori will do the same.

Charleston Montessori will implement the calendar in 2014, Payne said, to give parents time to "wrap their heads around the idea."

So far the response has been largely positive. Children don't care as much as adults often think they do, and the parents are happy to see the school take a student-centric approach.

"If we can be an inspiration for any other school or any other school system out there, we are happy to do it," Payne said.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.



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