By STEPHANIE BANCHERO
Early this month, as her cousins in Michigan spent their summer vacation splashing in area lakes, 11-year-old Ryan Duffin sat learning about the Great Lakes in social-studies class at Richview Middle School in Clarksville, Tenn.
“I could be enjoying my summer, but I’m stuck in class,” Ryan complained. “I hate it.”
Ryan is one of hundreds of thousands of students whose summer breaks ended early this year as schools from Toppenish, Wash., to Kettering, Ohio, to Harrisburg, Pa., have bucked a long—but waning—tradition of starting classes after Labor Day.
In Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district, the first school bell rang for 600,000 students on Aug. 14, three weeks earlier than the normal start. In Chicago, more than a third of the district’s 675 schools opened Aug. 13, part of a year-round schooling effort that spreads out the school calendar with shorter summer and winter breaks.
Proponents say the August start dates allow more instruction time before students take mandatory state achievement tests and Advanced Placement and college-entrance exams. John Deasy, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, said the new calendar lets students wrap up finals before the three-week winter break and gives high-school students more time to complete college applications. “This was a purely academic decision for us,” he said.
But opponents—including tourism groups and many parents—grumble the August school bell ruins summer vacations and punishes businesses that thrive during the summer months.
Ryan’s mother, Carol Duffin, was so angered by the early start—which she says has been creeping earlier in her district for years—she launched “Save Tennessee Summers” seven years ago and lobbied state lawmakers unsuccessfully for legislation barring a pre-Labor Day first bell. She “cringed,” she said, as she visited a Wal-Mart store around July 4th this year and saw school supplies on display.
“We are just wiping the barbecue sauce off our mouths and I am seeing pencil and pens and glue sticks,” she said.
The typical U.S. school year runs about 180 days, and the start and end dates are set by states or school districts. Many schools, especially in the North, generally open after Labor Day and wrap up in June. Others, particularly in the South, start in mid-August and end in mid-May, a relic of the agrarian calendar that ensured students were out of school in time for the spring planting season.
In the past decade, testing has become more important, thanks in part to requirements in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Law—used to evaluate students, close low-achieving schools and fire underperforming teachers. Many schools have pushed up the start date to provide more instructional time in hopes it will improve test performance.
Miya Clay, a 6th grader at low-income Dulles School of Excellence in Chicago, started school Monday—the earliest she has even been in class—but she was happy to be there. “It gives me a chance to read lots of books and more time to learn” before taking the state math and reading exams in the spring, she said.
Little research exists on whether earlier starts boost achievement. Some experts say lengthening the school year is more important, because there is ample evidence that some students, especially those who are low-income, suffer setbacks in their learning from being out of school during the long summer vacation. But the current moves by schools to start earlier don’t affect the number of days of instruction, which are generally set in teacher contracts.
The U.S. school calendar is unusual, with students typically attending school for 36 weeks, two weeks less than the average for industrialized countries.
In Los Angeles, an earlier start date caused concern among some teachers, parents and students. Ingrid Fey, a social-studies teacher at the Academic Leadership Community High School in South Los Angeles, said the change is an academic boon for her students. But as a parent, she sees the downside: Her 14-year-old son’s baseball team has a tournament in Utah next week. She decided to let him skip school and worked with his teacher to send him daily lessons. “I feel uneasy about that decision, but I also know the baseball trip can be a great learning experience,” she said.
Tina Bruno, who runs The Coalition for a Traditional School Year, a nonprofit group in San Antonio, Texas, that lobbies against early start dates, said she has fielded scores of calls from parents fighting pre-Labor Day resumption. “Now, we’re seeing the backlash,” she said.
This year, Alabama and Mississippi passed laws barring schools from opening before the end of August. In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad created a task force to study the issue. Iowa law dictates school cannot start before the first week of September, but more than 90% of districts have state waivers that let them open earlier.
Shirley Phillips, the recent president of the Travel Federation of Iowa, which lobbies on behalf of tourism firms and sits on the task force, said a post-Labor Day start helps firms, such as campgrounds and aquatic centers, that thrive in summer. For every day school starts early, businesses in Okoboji, on the shore of Okoboji Lake, lose $1 million in revenue, she said.
“When school starts early, it shuts down businesses and these are the same businesses that pay school taxes,” she said.