READY: Back to school: August is the new September

Mary Ready, Ready or Not

Remember the movie “Picnic”? It was about a Kansas town celebrating a big Labor Day get-together the day before school was to start. Rosalind Russell, playing the part of a middle-aged school teacher, is having a wonderful time, dancing, drinking whiskey, and letting everyone know she has to enjoy the day as much as she can because she begins school the next day and all the fun stops.

As a former middle-aged school teacher, I can identify. 

I can also identify with the Labor Day celebration BEFORE the start of school. For many years as a student and then as a teacher, that was just the way it was. The year students went back on Aug. 22 (teachers reporting for duty a week earlier), I thought the universal cosmos had shifted, and we were surely headed for chaos.

Well, it turned out to be not so bad, but still that nagging feeling that the August start date was just plain wrong. These days, the start date is often as early as the first week of August.

 Proponents of the shortened summer for students, teachers, and families supposedly see benefits. Among the forces that push schools toward an earlier school year are testing, progress toward a year-round calendar, money, and more money.

As to the high-stakes standardized testing issue, teachers and administrators have been talked into believing that getting in more instructional days before state assessment tests will produce higher student scores. Educational “consultants,” who have probably never served a day in a real classroom, have made a prosperous business from selling schools on the notion that reconfiguring the school year will result in greater academic achievement and make it easier to sneak in a multi-track year-round calendar, which would address the problem of school overcrowding.

School systems struggling for cash are vulnerable to trying calendar reforms because of the incentive funds offered by federal and state governments (No Child Left Behind). The conjecture is that restructuring the calendar will improve the performance of under-achieving and at-risk children. The government money is just too irresistible, so jumping on the calendar reform wagon is a given.

Another reason, backed by a 15-year government study, is tied to politics. The theory goes that America’s kids are getting less classroom time than foreign competitors.

However, a non-government examination concluded that teaching time is highest in the United States in a comparison of 15 other industrialized nations. And a recent check of those schools cited in government reports as calendar reconfiguration success stories disclosed that nearly all had returned to a traditional school year.

My reasons for enjoying the Labor Day picnic and THEN going back to school afterward are based on the human factor:

*August school start dates create headaches for working parents who need childcare during additional breaks throughout the school year.

*Valuable instructional time is lost in the days preceding and following each break in the school calendar. When their routine is disrupted, students require time to readjust.

*When back to school wipes out the first days of August, children are no longer able to participate in church or civic-sponsored summer programs and summer camp.

*Students who start school early do not spend more time in class. Early school start dates simply shift vacation days from the summer into the school year.

*An early school start means lower attendance, especially during the first few weeks of class. You can’t teach them if they aren’t there.

*Schools are compared to each other based on student performance on standardized tests given in the spring. But, statewide, tests are given at the same time. That comparison is only fair if each school has the same number of days to teach for the test. That isn’t the case when local school boards make their own school calendars.

 *It’s too darn hot. School systems are spending thousands of dollars on utility costs to keep schools air conditioned. Saved funds from a later start will pay for salaries, supplies, and additional educational programs. Also, kids are walking home from the bus stop on sweltering afternoons after a day possibly including P.E., band, or football practice outside in August heat.

*It’s bad for tourism in our state and in other early-start states as vacationing families forfeit end-of-summer plans.

With minor adjustments in scheduling, Florida’s schools can save money, give children an excellent opportunity for learning, enrich Florida’s tourism economy, help working parents, keep the integrity of the 180 days, and still finish fall semester before Christmas.

All without causing harm to student academic achievement.

Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.