BY ROGER MOONEY
MIAMI GARDENS, Florida – The calendar said it was July 6, but parents pulled their cars to a stop outside TRU Prep Academy and students stepped out wearing their standard school attire – black slacks, white shirts, and red ties.
School is out for summer in most parts of the country, but at TRU Prep it was very much in session, with students returning $500 cash loan online from summer vacation only the day before.
Welcome to a year-round school.
The private K-12 school in Miami Gardens, where nearly all the 100 students receive an education choice scholarship administered by Step Up For Students, moved to the alternative format during the 2021-22 school year. Classes begin during the first full week of July and run for six weeks, followed by a week off. The six-weeks-on, one-week-off block continues until the Memorial Day weekend in May, with a two-week break for Thanksgiving, a two-week break for Christmas, and other holidays off mixed in.
The summer break is basically the month of June.
The idea is to reduce the “summer slide” in knowledge gained the previous school year by giving students and teachers breaks throughout the year to recoup the time off missed with the shorter summer — and to recharge.
“When I first heard about it, I was actually happy,” said seventh-grader Justin Haynes. “The week off helps me relax, and when we come back, I feel refreshed.”
According to the website Resilient Educator, a number of school districts throughout the country have moved from the traditional school calendar to year-round classes. A study by Duke University showed students who attend year-round schools have a “slight advantage” over their counterparts who enjoy the traditional 10- to 12-week summer vacation.
The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) reported that students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged areas, struggle to retain the material they learned from the previous year when they return from the long summer break.
“This is true pretty much in every educational setting: We spent at least half of the first quarter of school reviewing,” said Andrea Muhammad, TRU Prep’s dean of academics and high school instructor. “If you take a child and give them two-and-half, three months off and expect them to remember everything, there’s going to be a ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ feel.”
Mario Smith, TRU Prep’s founder and executive director, realized a goal nearly two decades in the making when he opened the school in August 2018. A graduate of nearby Monsignor Pace High School and Kansas State University, Smith said he wanted to create a scholastic setting that would “mesh sports and education together.” He resigned from his job as a teacher and football coach at Pace in 2013 to pursue this dream.
Smith, who starred as a football player at Pace and Kansas State and spent three seasons playing in the Canadian Football League, wanted to better prepare students for college life, especially those who could earn an athletic scholarship. In addition to the core classes, TRU Prep offers classes in sports management, sports journalism and sports medicine. To be eligible to play a sport, TRU Prep athletes must maintain a 2.5 grade point average, which is above the 2.3 mandated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the 2.0 mandated by the state of Florida.
Smith said he is grateful for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Education Options because it allows students “an opportunity to be in an environment that best suits their needs. (TRU Prep has) a family feel, and having those scholarships, it allows the students to be in this environment.”
Looking for a way to combat the summer slide, Smith and the administrators began talking about the year-round calendar in 2019 and implemented it for the 2021-22 school year.
Like any ground-shaking change to the norm, the new schedule took a little getting used to. Attending school in July while your friends — and, in some cases brothers or sisters — were off, was a bit of a shock for the students.
“That’s not a big deal anymore,” said eighth-grader Azraa Muhammad.
Having a full week off after only six weeks was another shock to the system, though nearly everyone involved said it was welcomed.
“It helps me think about what I just learned,” Azraa said.
It was during that second six-week block that Andrea Muhammad said everything began to feel normal.
“It’s became the natural flow for us,” said Lakeisha Saunders, who teaches the elementary school. “Before you knew it, it was May.”
Teachers used those weeks off to prepare lesson plans for the upcoming block
“(The week off) also allows those students who were a little bit behind to get extra help from some of us without the distraction of being in the classroom,” Muhammad said.
Some students missed the first week or two of the new school year because they are attending an academic or enrichment camp. Those students will use the off weeks to make up whatever work they missed.
Schools in the Miami Gardens area were summer silent on July 6. Morning commuters did not slow for the blinking lights of school zones or school buses stopped to pick up passengers.
But it was classes as usual inside TRU Prep. Saunders was teaching elementary students about making a household budget. A morning rainstorm passed outside while her students asked questions about paying utility bills and setting aside money for groceries.
Those students were beginning their second turn at a year-round school calendar. Alani Hunte, a fourth grader, said she didn’t mind, even if it meant getting up a 6 a.m. to go to school in July.
“Because,” she said with a measure of pride, “my dad said I’m going to be smarter than everybody.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.