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Published in Print: August 9, 2006, as Help for the Summer

Help for the Summer

The demand for summer employees and the concerns of families have helped fuel a successful backlash in some states against school starting dates that have been getting earlier.

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Throngs of people cover the concrete walkways of Dorney Park, an amusement park about an hour north of Philadelphia. Everyone is drenched, either from the rides in Wildwater Kingdom or by sweat. Temperatures will climb beyond 100 degrees on this scorching July day.

And in nearly every corner of the park, teenage employees are the cogs that keep the enterprise running. They collect the $36.95 admission fee. They operate the Thunderhawk and Hydra roller coasters. They ring up key chains and shot glasses in the gift shops. They hand out stuffed Sonic the Hedgehog dolls at the game booths, and they dispense cups of frozen Dippin’ Dots to hungry park-goers.

Employees under the age of 18 make up about 40 percent of the park’s summer workforce, and, park officials say, are even more crucial to its operations later in the season, when college-student employees go back to school and international workers return home. So it’s a good thing for Dorney Park that these Pennsylvania high school students usually don’t return to school until the last week in August or the first week in September.

That seems to be a message resonating in other states where, after several years of seeing schools set earlier starting dates, even in July, policymakers are shifting the calendar pendulum back toward Labor Day. While most states let school districts make their own calendars, 11 states have reined in that authority and set statewide starting dates close to the first of September.

On one side of the debate are many school officials, who increasingly have moved school openings up to accommodate test schedules and to reduce the academic ground lost by students over the traditional three-month summer break. But those changes have caused an uproar among parents, teachers’ unions, and representatives of the tourism industry, who want school to start around Labor Day.

In the middle of this debate, whether they know it or not, are the high school students working at Dorney Park and in other summer jobs across the country. “I like where my school starts,” said Brendan Strohl, a 17-year-old who will return to class the last week of August to begin his senior year at Lehighton Area High School. He aspires to study mechanical engineering at nearby Lehigh University. He helps supervise the park’s rides, despite this being only his second summer working here.

“I think kids need as much time as possible to get real-life experience,” he said emphatically. “Being with your family, having a job; that’s something kids shouldn’t give up.”

That’s why many parents have been fighting “calendar creep,” the phenomenon of local policymakers’ scheduling earlier and earlier beginnings to the school year.

In some cases, the earlier starting dates mean that schools get out earlier, thus preserving the 10-12 week summer break. But in other places, time is taken from summer and added to other parts of the school year, thus truncating summer vacation to as short as six weeks. According to Market Data Retrieval, a Shelton, Conn.-based education research company, 65,625 public schools nationwide opened before Sept. 1 in the 2005-06 school year, or about 74 percent of the schools surveyed. Ten years ago, about 68 percent of the schools opened before Sept. 1, and in 1988-89, just over half did.

In response to that trend, loosely organized parents’ groups from North Carolina to Texas have lobbied state legislators over the past few years to pass laws limiting when the school year can begin. This year, legislation was signed into law in Florida, South Carolina, and Texas largely barring schools from starting before mid-August.

The changes haven’t gone over well with everyone, particularly in Florida, where a proposed school start of Aug. 9 in Broward County helped prompt Florida lawmakers to intervene and require schools to start no earlier than 14 days before Labor Day.

“We opposed the legislation, and we are going to try to change it,” said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. “We feel this is a state intrusion into local control.”

School Starting Dates

Most states let districts decide when to start school. The states below are among those that have limited such authority and moved the opening day closer to Labor Day.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: School Starting Dates

But others applaud such policies.

“We’d like to see a calendar that’s more family-friendly,” said Tina Bruno, the executive director of the Coalition for a Traditional School Calendar, a San Antonio-based group that fights what it calls “bloated school calendars.” The coalition provides interested parties with relevant research and promotes awareness of the school calendar controversy.

An independent public relations consultant and mother of three, Ms. Bruno has run the organization for about five years. She said the group, whose mailing list includes about 50,000 families, has a budget of $100,000 and is financed by small, private donations and also by the travel and tourism industry, which relies on teenagers for summer labor.

One driving force behind the earlier school start dates is the expansion of high-stakes testing. Everything from student graduation to teacher bonuses to school vouchers can be tied to scores on state exams, which are often given in the spring. Some educators want students in the classroom as early as possible to have enough time to prepare for the tests.

In addition, proponents of the earlier school calendar say it’s needed to finish the first semester before the winter break, allowing students to take their end-of-semester exams before the holidays.

According to a 2002 report by the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, students lose an average of two months of learning during the summer break. Still, says Ronald A. Fairchild, the executive director of the center, moving the school year a few weeks in one direction or the other won’t have much of an impact on summer learning loss if there continues to be a three-month break from learning.

“From our perspective, the real issue is, how do we work together as a community to rethink this schedule of time and learning?” he asked.

His research, and that of others, shows that students lose the most ground in areas that require a lot of practice, such as mathematics, spelling, and reading. And because summer reading loss is most pronounced for low-income children, Mr. Fairchild said, summer vacation aggravates the achievement gap between poorer and better-off children.

Even so, the Center for Summer Learning doesn’t advocate year-round schooling, but rather, academic opportunities for students during the summer, especially for those students who live below the poverty line. Poor children, it notes, also benefit from such programs’ inclusion of subsidized meals and occasions for safe physical activity.

“I think what we really need,” Mr. Fairchild said, “are creative solutions by educators, legislators, and parents on how can kids continue learning when school’s not in session.”

The student workers at Dorney Park seem to think summer learning loss is a part of life, and they’re fine with that. Nicholas Solosky, 15, admitted that, from a strictly academic standpoint, “it’d actually be better to start a little earlier, because then I’d get to refresh my knowledge.”

But as far as his summers go, he is in no hurry to start his sophomore year at Northampton Area High School. “I’d rather be working,” he said. Working the park’s baseball-toss game, he believes, has helped develop his communication skills beyond what he can practice in his vocational-technical classes at his school in nearby Northampton, Pa.

“I feel I learn more here,” he said.

Matthew Mizuhara is a 16-year-old lifeguard at the water park. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he holds in his lap the floppy-brimmed fishing hat that protects his shaven head from the sun during his eight-hour shift.

Sure, Mr. Mizuhara said, it sometimes takes him a little while at the beginning of the school year to get up to speed—longer for English than for the subjects he really excels at, like calculus and Spanish.

“I’ll be a little rusty,” he said, “but give me a week or two, I’ll be back.” Still, returning at the beginning of August, instead of September, when his junior year at Parkland High School will resume, wouldn’t aid the situation much. “Three months, two months, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Kids, they’re gonna relax. No one’s reviewing any material.”

He added, “If the state wants kids to keep up with their reading, they should give out summer reading, book reports.”

A short pause. “I wouldn’t like it,” he conceded. “But it would help.”

Although school starting dates have prompted legislation as far north as Minnesota, a majority of the states debating the issue have been in the South, where temperatures often soar to dangerous levels in August. But other regions are not immune from severe heat.

School experts say that a driving force behind summer vacation was the idea that schools in the summer were hot, humid, and a breeding ground for disease. With widespread air conditioning of schools, such concerns have waned. But the high cost of running air conditioners is a problem.

According to a 2004 report released by the office of Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the estimated statewide school electricity cost for an average day in August was about $3.8 million, twice as much as the average day in May.

“When I see the amount of money schools are spending on cooling costs, … we could do so much educationally with that money,” Ms. Bruno of the Coalition for a Traditional School Calendar said.

Ms. Bruno also cherishes the extra time she gets with her three school-age daughters in the summer. During the school year, she says, her children get up so early for school that they’re in bed by 8 p.m.

“You kind of run out of time during the school year,” she said. But in the summer, her girls are free to stay up later, reading and talking with her. She said she often engages them in conversations about books they’re reading and never misses an out-of-school teaching opportunity.

“I am augmenting my children’s education,” Ms. Bruno said. “I’m not saying summer should be all laying in the grass and looking at clouds. But confining education to the four walls of the classroom is also dangerous.”

Vol. 25, Issue 44, Pages 28-31

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