Sunday, August 07, 2005

Earlier School Starting Dates: Parental Resistance Grows

At the start of last month, we took a brief look at a proposed Michigan law that would mandate statewide the restoration of a post-Labor Day starting date for the school year. Over at Number 2 Pencil, they comment on a piece by the Miami Herald's Dave Barry who says that the idea of Miami's children going back to school in early August is "insane."

The Arizona Republic
reprints yesterday's article from The New York Times about how parents in some areas around the country are resisting the trend toward earlier start dates:

As far as its public schools are concerned, Early County in rural southwest Georgia is suitably named. School started on July 22. In Chandler, schools opened that same week. In Florida, the last county to open schools is Putnam, east of Gainesville, where classes start next Tuesday.

"It's crazy," said Vivian Jackson, a mother of two school-aged children in Marietta, Ga., where schools open in mid-August. "There's no reason for it. I spent yesterday in the allergist's office to get a note from the doctor because my child cannot ride in a school bus when the temperature is 90 degrees, and there's not a day in August here when the temperature does not reach 90 degrees.

"We don't want to start school in August and get out in May," she added. "We want our summers back."

Like thousands of other parents, Jackson is not only complaining. Through grass-root groups like Save Our Summers in North Carolina, Save Georgia Summers, which she helped organize, and Texans for a Traditional School Year, angry parents are barging into state legislatures, demanding change. In some cases, they are prevailing. Last year in North Carolina, a petition and e-mail drive led to a new law that says public schools cannot start before Aug. 25. Wisconsin recently set its start date as any time after Sept. 1. Beginning next year in Minnesota, public schools cannot open before Labor Day.

A bill this year in the Georgia legislature that would have pushed the starting date to late August failed, but supporters vowed to fight on. "Our voices are growing louder and louder, and we're going back to the legislature next year and make this an election issue," Jackson said. "We've made it clear we'll endorse anyone who supports our position."

A major impetus for the early start of the school year is standardized testing. In many states, school district officials contend that shifting starting dates to July or August allows for semester exams before the Christmas break and for added instruction ahead of statewide tests that are used to measure progress for the federal No Child Left Behind program.

Some have added a few days of instruction, but most have shifted the academic year, traditionally from September to June, to July or August to May. Other districts have stretched the academic year to adopt what is known in some places as a year-round school year, which rotates periods of instruction in 9-to-12-week blocks with vacation breaks of three to four weeks.

Surveys by Market Data Retrieval, an education research company, found that the number of public schools starting their year before Sept. 1 in the 2004-2005 school year had increased by 11 percent over those starting before Sept. 1 a decade earlier.

In most states, the school calendar is left to individual districts to decide. The exceptions are Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia, where school opens on the same day statewide and, in each case, no later than the third week of August.

In the South, which has traditionally trailed other regions in academic achievement, changes are occurring more rapidly. In the process, they are trying the patience of parents who argue that the shift is disrupting family schedules that include summer camps, sports activities and long-planned vacations.

The parents also contend that operating schools in the hottest weeks of summer force schools to spend money on air conditioning that could otherwise be spent on teachers. In some states, the tourism industry has joined the angry parents, asserting that shorter summer vacations deprive the state of millions of dollars in tourism tax revenues that, in turn, help to finance public schools.

As in other states, the effort to fight back in Georgia began with just a few parents and grew rapidly, as an increasing number of school districts pushed their starting date earlier. This year, 23 of the state's 184 districts began classes last month.

Jackson said that her group, which now includes up to 7,000 parents, campaigned to prevent more districts from moving to a July start. But they got only so far as a hearing before an education subcommittee in the state legislature.

There, they encountered the kind of intense and, often, emotional debate that surrounds the issue of starting dates elsewhere, with parents and tourism officials pushing for longer summer breaks while teachers and school officials fight for local control and more time for instruction before tests.

Tommy Benton, a Republican member of the Georgia House who is a retired history teacher, said he voted against setting a later statewide start date to preserve local control and to relieve teachers of the growing pressures to show improvement in their classrooms.

"It's one of the few professions where you're held accountable," he said. "Our results are put in the newspaper."

In some places, the debate has also included an academic argument over whether children learn better with shorter or longer breaks. Proponents of extended calendars, like the National Association for Year-Round Education, say children retain more knowledge with shorter breaks and benefit from taking exams before their Christmas recess, rather than after it.

"Summer learning loss has been established in research literature, and teachers have known it for years," said Charles Ballenger, the association's executive director emeritus, though he cited no specific report. "So if you cut down on summer breaks, chances are, you cut down on learning loss."

Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at Duke University who is director of its education program, said that a modified school calendar could be more helpful to children from families of lower socio-economic status.

But he doubted that modified calendars produce any overall academic benefits, a view shared by Gene V. Glass, a professor of education policy at Arizona State University, who said that at least a half-dozen studies suggest that "there is not a scrap of evidence that shows a year-round calendar improves achievement."

Among parent groups pushing for later start dates, none has been more effective than Texans for a Traditional School Year, which began in 2000 and later spawned the Coalition for Traditional School Calendars, a national advisory group.

Tina Bruno, a mother of three school-aged children who founded both groups, said that parents across the state who were alarmed over a steady drift of start dates into early August initiated a writing campaign that led state lawmakers to set a statewide starting date for late August.

The success of the campaign led to the formation of similar groups throughout the South, including one now organizing in Florida, where 20 of the state's 67 county school districts opened for classes this week and another 35 are scheduled to open next week.

Sherry Sturner, a nonpracticing lawyer and mother of two who is leading the Florida effort, said she grew concerned at the rapid pace of change. From just the 2000-01 academic year, 54 county districts are opening on an earlier day this year.

In our southern California school district, the governing board of trustees has been advocating a later start date for years. They say that research has shown kids miss fewer days when school begins after Labor Day. So far, the leadership of the teachers union has resisted any efforts to have a September starting date. By contract, our district's starting date is an item that must be "mutually agreed on" between union and district, so I don't see any changes in the foreseeable future.

Our first day of school will be August 29th.

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