FAIRBANKS — A small private school in Fairbanks will drop its traditional school calendar and turn to a year-round school schedule this fall.

Spruce Tree Montessori School, a relatively new addition to the Fairbanks school scene, will transition its several dozen students to the new calendar beginning September. The school’s director, Sabrina Binkley, made the official announcement to parents June 11.

The Montessori method, utilized by Spruce Tree and many other is an alternative education style that features less group learning and attempts to give students more freedom to learn through largely independent but supervised activities.

The idea for the change first came about in November, when Binkley spent an extended weekend in Chicago at the Seton Montessori Institute, where she is working to receive her official Montessori principal credentials. While there she visited a Montessori school that used the year-round model.

“I was really intrigued by the benefits, especially at the elementary level,” Binkley said. “Student learning not only can go deeper, their depth of knowledge and understanding becomes more ingrained in them.”

She began looking into the idea further, reading research and articles on success other schools had found by making the switch. 

Binkley said she really began considering making the decision in March after sending out surveys to parents and receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Spruce Tree was founded just more than two years ago in response to a perceived demand for Montessori programs in Fairbanks and claims to be the first private Montessori program for elementary students in town. 

For the first two years of its existence, Spruce Tree operated with a traditional fall-through-spring calendar.

Chinook Charter School offers a Montessori program for elementary students but is a public school. It is also difficult to get into as a student. 

Binkley said the obvious demand for Chinook’s programs was part of her motivation for opening her school. The year before Binkley founded Spruce Tree, she said she was told more than 100 families had applied for four spots, which are handed out through a lottery.

Binkley’s own kids attended Fairbanks Montessori School, a private program that serves preschool and kindergarten students, and Binkley served on the board.

One of the biggest problems a year-round calendar solves, according to Binkley, is the summer learning lapse. Summer learning loss, a well-known and oft-cited phenomenon in education research, refers to the knowledge lost by students during the lengthy summer break that has to be re-taught at the start of the next school year.

“They spend so many fewer hours doing review, because the summer learning loss is certainly real,” Binkley said. “That burnout factor happens after seven to 10 weeks. Those last two weeks they’re less excited about school.”

To help solve this problem, Binkley began devising a new calendar that features an average of seven weeks on and two weeks off. The new school calendar increases the number of school days each year. 

The state requires schools to operate for a certain number of hours equivalent to 180 6.5-hour school days each year. During the 2013-14 school year Spruce Tree operated for 170 7-hour days. Next year Spruce Tree will add 26 days to its calendar.

Despite frequent research on the detrimental affects of summer learning loss, case studies on the benefits of year-round school have been mixed. 

Some school districts — such as Denver, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City — have adopted the method in pilot programs, but many have also gone back to the traditional calendar, citing lack of improvement.

Binkley said she has received no pushback from families over the change. Most parents, she said, are interested in the possibilities.

“All of our parents are excited to try it,” she said. “They’re excited to be the first ones to try something like this.”

Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter:

@FDNMschools.