Parents revolt against summer starts
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|Sat, 08-06-2005 - 10:07am|
This article was in today's NY Times.
As More Schools Open Earlier, Parents Seek to Reclaim Summer
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
As far as its public schools are concerned, Early County in rural southwest Georgia is suitably named. School started two weeks ago, on July 22. In Chandler, Ariz., a booming suburb of Phoenix, schools opened that same week. In Florida, the last county to open schools is Putnam, east of Gainesville, where classes start Aug. 16.
"It's crazy," said Vivian Jackson, a mother of two school-age 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."
Along with thousands of other parents, Ms. Jackson is not just complaining. Through grass-root groups like Save Georgia Summers, which she helped to organize, Save Our Summers in North Carolina and Texans for a Traditional School Year, 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 their year 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 start 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," Ms. Jackson said. "We've made it clear we'll endorse anyone who supports our position."
A major impetus for an early start to the school year is standardized testing. In many states, 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 calendar to adopt what is known in some places as a year-round school year, rotating periods of instruction in 9-to-12-week blocks with vacation breaks of 3 to 4 weeks.
"Districts are feeling such pressure," said Barbara Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National School Boards Association. "As stakes for accountability rise, schools need flexibility to get the most out of the academic year. The calendar is one more variable to work with."
Surveys by Market Data Retrieval, an education research company, found that the number of public schools starting the academic year before Sept. 1 in 2004-5 rose 11 percent, to more than 63,000, over those starting before Sept. 1 a decade ago.
In most states, individual districts determine their school calendars. The exceptions are Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin, where school opens on the same day statewide and, in each case, no earlier 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 shifts disrupt 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 forces districts to spend money on air conditioning that could otherwise be spent on teachers. In some states, the tourism industry supports the 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.
Ms. 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 the parents and tourism officials offset by teachers and school officials fighting 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 later start dates to preserve local control and to relieve teachers of the growing pressure to show improvement in their classes.
"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 also includes arguments on whether shorter or longer breaks help students. Proponents of extended calendars, like the National Association for Year-Round Education, say that 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 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."
The largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, said it had not taken a position on the issue.
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-age children who founded both groups, said that parents across Texas who were alarmed over a steady drift of start dates into early August initiated a writing campaign that led lawmakers to set a statewide starting date for late August.
The campaign's success 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 set 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 2000-1 academic year, 54 county districts are opening on an earlier day this year.
"Our goal is to start petitions, write letters and contact our representatives," she said, attributing the shift to the districts' need to raise scores on statewide standardized tests. "We're prepared to do whatever it takes for a change statewide.
"Nobody I know wants school to start this early," she said. "Everybody here is miserable."