Once upon a time, the summer was not interrupted by the beginning of school.
As members of older generations can attest, for many decades the academic year didn’t start traditionally until after Labor Day, leaving the dog days of August free and unencumbered for kids. The reason behind an eventual transition to late summer can be hazy even among local school administrators, but they don’t mind the earlier opening.
This year, Swanton schools won’t begin the academic year until Sept. 7 due to construction projects in the district. Interim Superintendent Jay LeFevre said his preference for a school start is, “What is the best way to educate kids. I feel we’re making calendar decisions based on test scores. I feel like we’re putting too much weight on that, but I understand the pressures schools feel.”
He said schools historically opened in September to respect the needs of the agricultural community. He said in later years “it was probably more as tradition than of necessity.”
Complaints from parents about a summer start have been few over the years; most have concerned an interruption in summer activities.
LeFevre understands an advantage of beginning school in August is that students get a jump on learning that will benefit at state testing time. “(But) I don’t think it should be the driver of the testing,” he said. “The driver should be what is the best way to educate kids, and the secondary reason would be to support the values and desires of our community.”
He also thinks beginning in September, after student fair activities that supersede school, would make the schedule less complicated.
LeFevre said Fulton County school superintendents gathered several years ago to discuss the August opening, and determined the ideal situation is for the schools to all stay on a regular schedule.
“It’s cost-efficient,” he said. “There are a lot of transportation costs that are increased if the schedules aren’t synced. It just makes it more complicated. There’s a lot of coordination between districts in the county regarding transportation.”
Fayette Local Schools Superintendent Erik Belcher believes the state may drive school calendars with its mandated testing.
Because the testing affects the Value Added component of district report cards – which reflects how well students have achieved a full year of academic growth – all school curriculum must be taught by April, when testing is done. That leaves teachers only eight months to cover the curriculum.
“You’re talking eight months to show a full year’s growth. Ideally, what the school should be doing…is starting Aug. 1 and getting out in May, if you were giving full credence to the test,” Belcher said. “People want to maximize the school year…because you’re losing the last month and a half.”
Beginning the school year in mid-August, as the district has done the past couple of years, does have drawbacks. Traditional morning fog during the month can steal some of the district’s delay days, and the early start can interfere with students’ summertime jobs.
Belcher would prefer a year-round school schedule, saying three things hurt kids educationally: television, retention, and summer breaks. Still, the school district makes allowances for the summer start date. Students are excused for late summer family vacations, although they’re required to make up missed work. And the schools close down during Fulton County Fair week, since a majority of students participate in activities there.
Steve Switzer doesn’t have a preference for a starting date. The Pettisville Local Schools superintendent will concede, however, that the current mid-August opening “is probably one of the earlier dates.”
He’s uncertain why the school year’s traditional beginning was formerly in September, but suggested that weather may have played a part. “Schools back then weren’t typically air-conditioned,” he said.
Besides, Switzer said, the advantages of an August start include an early jump on education ahead of Labor Day and a full week of spring break rather than the old tradition of just a day or two.
Wauseon’s school year has begun in August since 1982, according to Superintendent Larry Brown. He said it’s important that the school district’s calendar aligns with those of neighboring school calendars and that of Four County Career Center.
Brown said an indirect factor for the August start is the official start dates of the Ohio High School Athletic Association for fall activities on or near Aug. 1 for grades 7-12.
And while parents may prefer school starts based on their work schedules, “there have not been any complaints here in Wauseon about an August start,” Brown said. “That may be attributed to the fact that the calendar has not changed significantly in over 35 years.”
The only trend he’s notice toward reviving a September opening is when school districts will try to extend a particular summer due to the construction schedule of a major building project. Brown said regular attempts by the travel and amusement park industries to encourage state legislation to reinstate school openings after Labor Day have failed.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.