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Published in Print: August 8, 2001, as August Openings Put Schools On Hot Seat

August Openings Put Schools On Hot Seat

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It may not have the same ring as "See You in September," but more and more school districts are telling students to make sure they're back in August for the first day of school—sometimes as early as the first week of the month.

A recent national survey of public schools by a Connecticut company that tracks school trends found that while 51 percent of public schools had opened before Sept. 1 in 1988, that figure had leaped to 76 percent by last year, with the biggest gain in the early 1990s.

"The trend was a pretty dramatic shift," said Kathleen Brantley, the director of product development for Market Data Retrieval of Shelton, Conn., which collected the data on school calendars.

Some of the change comes from the gradual growth of so-called year- round schools, which typically feature a shortened summer break and a late July or early August start. But schools striving to reinvent the academic calendar have been far from alone in embracing earlier starting dates. And like most changes in the educational landscape, the trend has made some people very unhappy.

Texas parents and tourism-industry officials complained so hard about early start dates, for example, that the legislature this spring passed a law that effectively prohibits districts from opening their doors before the third week in August without a state waiver. And in Virginia Beach, Va., teachers and business leaders helped sink a state waiver that would have allowed a pre-Labor Day start for local schools.

Devising a school calendar is typically an intensely local undertaking. Officials and calendar committees in one community often take into account factors that do not exist or play very differently in another.

"There are few issues that seem to generate more aggravation, interest, and emotion than school calendars," said Mitchell A. Strohman, the spokesman for the 11,800-student Flagstaff, Ariz., public schools.

Flagstaff experimented with a mid-August start several years ago, but returned to a late-August one this year.

"No matter what calendar we pick, there will be a segment of the local community that will experience heartburn over it," Mr. Strohman said.

But state and regional influences also affect school calendars. Peg Smith, the executive director of the Martinsville, Ind.-based American Camping Association, noted that in New York state, for instance, school openings are mostly after Labor Day. On the other hand, mid- August starts are common in the the South-Central states, such as Texas and Oklahoma. The group keeps informal track of school openings because they are important to summer-camp schedules.

Reasons Vary

Interviews with administrators around the country pointed to a few common considerations on the part of districts that have moved to earlier start dates.

One is the desire to get exams in high school out of the way before the December break. Another is the freedom to change that comes with air conditioning.

Alvin L. Ginsberg, an administrator for the Oklahoma City schools, said the 39,000- student district was able to accommodate the request for exams before the winter break by switching from a late-August start to a mid-August one a few years ago when the schools got air conditioning.

"There were big pleas from teachers and students and parents," he said. "By the time kids take 10 days off, there's an opportunity for forgetting things."

Meanwhile, other districts in the area were making the same calendar change, which served as a further incentive. "If we don't let our kids out when they do, the summer jobs get taken," Mr. Ginsberg said.

Several Florida districts recently moved up opening day from late August to the middle of the month. Many observers link the move to Florida's high-stakes tests, a factor echoed elsewhere.

"We all want to be in school about the same amount of time before we take the tests" in February and March, said Lori Hartwig Yusko, the spokeswoman for the 48,000- student Pasco County schools north of Tampa. At least two nearby districts have also moved up their start dates by two weeks. In Florida, the tests are used to rate schools and determine high school graduation.

Still, Ms. Yusko said, the clamor to end the marking period before winter break played a larger role in the decision.

All of these factors unfold in a larger context of social and cultural change. The agricultural harvest long ago lost its grip on the nation's psyche as well as its economy, and weeks at the lake may no longer have the same appeal, even for families that can afford such leisure. August is fair game for the calendar in a way it once was not.

Part of the change, said Douglas W. Busman, the superintendent of the 3,100-student Caledonia district in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Mich., reflects the nature and pace of family life.

"The notion of a long summer vacation as a family is more the exception now," Mr. Busman said. The upshot is that shorter breaks—whether in the summer or at other times of the year, such as Thanksgiving—may better suit families.

After having closed on June 6, Mr. Busman's schools will reopen Aug. 22—except for an elementary school that opened three years ago with a year- round or—as its advocates prefer—a "balanced" calendar. That school starts Aug. 7.

Another consideration is that Mr. Busman and his fellow Michigan superintendents have had to adjust to a state law that required schools to gradually add a total of 108 hours for instruction to the school year between 1996 and 1999.

"To try to get the number of hours into the calendar, [and] build in some snow days, it's really starting to push into August," Mr. Busman said.

Making Enemies

District leaders who try to start school earlier can face a torrent of criticism. That was the case in the East Coast resort city of Virginia Beach last spring.

Officials of the city's 77,500- student district went to the state for a waiver to open school before Labor Day, saying they wanted to add four days at the start of the school year to help assess where students stood academically. The result, they said, would be better student performance on Virginia's high-stakes tests.

The state school board approved the waiver on a 4-3 vote. Virginia is one of just five states that regulate school openings, and the one that requires the latest opening— after Labor Day.

But passionate local protest led by the teachers' union and shoreline tourism businesses prompted the Virginia Beach school board to backtrack on its earlier support for the change.

Instead of 185 days and a pre-Labor Day start for this coming school year, the board approved a 183-day academic calendar that starts the day after Labor Day. The two extra days will likely be canceled holidays. The board said it might support an earlier opening for the 2002-03 school year.

"I'm hoping the board will embrace an earlier start time," said Timothy J. Jenney, the superintendent of the Virginia Beach schools. "I'm hoping that calmer heads will prevail."

Some of the same issues that entangled the Virginia Beach plan surfaced in Texas during the fight over state Sen. Eddie J. Lucio Jr.'s proposal to regulate school starting dates. A compromise bill that passed the legislature this year prohibits Texas schools from starting earlier than the week that includes Aug. 21.

Sen. Lucio, a Democrat, said the issue was first brought to his attention six years ago by tourist-industry groups, which argued that the earlier dates deprived them of family patronage and the labor of teenagers. Now, he is convinced that most Texans don't want school to start until after Labor Day.

"Some of their kids have to work summer jobs," he said. "And it's way too hot in the early part of August to be riding a school bus or participating in athletics."

Most recently, Mr. Lucio said, his major concern has been the state's 200,000 migrant workers. "They are the ones being hurt the most," he said, because their parents often have to chose between making money and getting their children to school. Many opt for the extra work, helping to drive first-week absences into the hundreds of thousands, according to Mr. Lucio.

He and others credited much of the bill's success to a group called Texans for a Traditional School Year, which claims 14,000 members and was formed to support the effort. Yet the limits imposed by the legislature remain controversial, with some districts poised to retain their early-August starts by going to the state for waivers, as the legislation allows. The bill does not take effect until the 2002-03 school year.

Bye-Bye to Break?

Few districts start earlier than Allen, a suburb of Dallas that opens this year on Aug. 6 and closes May 23. Tim Carroll, the district's spokesman, traces the early start to a decade ago, when Allen schools were on a year-round calendar. The 9,400- student district has since abandoned that schedule, but it has kept its two weeklong breaks in the fall, which proved popular. Mr. Carroll said district officials have yet to decide whether to seek a waiver.

Merrolee R. Dill, the parent of a 2nd and an 8th grader in district schools, favors the current calendar. "I believe that three months of summer break is too long, and our children begin to get bored, forget things that have learned the previous school year, and frankly, it is just too darned hot be outside playing," she wrote in an e-mail urging friends to be heard on Sen. Lucio's bill.

Growing up in Wichita Falls, Texas, Ms. Dill started school after Labor Day and had no fall breaks other than a short one at Thanksgiving, she recalls. The schools were not air-conditioned.

Today, Ms. Dill said, "it's a whole other world."

Vol. 20, Issue 43, Pages 1,25

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