- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

The jury is still out on the performance of the District’s latest in a long line of school superintendents, but you’ve got to give Clifford B. Janey credit for one important achievement. Not only did D.C. students return to classes on time — a major feat in the nation’s capital — but they actually started early.

Traditionally, the District’s school term begins the day after Labor Day. This year, however, the school bells rang yesterday. Students in Prince George’s County got an even shorter summer vacation, as they started a week ago.

Should the traditional September back-to-school start go the way of VHS tapes? It depends on family traditions, cost-effectiveness and the academic needs of the particular school district. So, parents must be consulted before the decision is made, one way or the other.

Across the river, Virginia students are in a minority whose summer vacation extends through August. In fact, peeved parents pressured the legislature to pass a law forbidding most state school districts from starting classes before Labor Day. The exceptions include experi-mental or well-established year-round programs such as Timber Lane Elementary School in Falls Church.

A growing number of parents nationwide are revolting against the so-called “calendar race,” which is in large part responsible for students returning to classes earlier each year. Educators cite the need to prepare students for standard-ized tests, mainly mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as the primary reason for the earlier start dates.

Some educators think the traditional school calendar, established when most Americans were farmers and needed their children to work in the fields, is outdated. In today’s competitive global information economy, they suggest that American students need more instructional time to keep up with their international counterparts. They look to Japan, where students attend classes for 220 days a year instead of 180 days.

Proponents of the more-school-and-the-sooner-the-better approach, such as the National Association of Year-Round Education: Learning for All Seasons (NAYRE), insist that students don’t retain instruction during the summer. Therefore, teachers lose valuable instruction time in the fall on review or remedial material.

But opponents, who want children to enjoy a full summer break, counter that there is no empirical data to indicate improved academic achievement comes from either early start dates or year-round schooling.

“Texans for a Traditional School Year,” “Georgians Need Summers” and “Save Our Summers” in North Carolina are just a few of the organizations aimed at preserving the traditional nine-month school calendar and September start dates.

Almost half of Texas’ schools returned to a traditional calendar. Last year, North Carolina parents e-mailed petitions to state legislators to get them to pass a law stating that public schools could not begin before Aug. 25. Wisconsin law requires schools to start after Sept. 1.

Proponents of the traditional school year, including the Coalition for a Traditional School Year, note on their Web site that the number of school days, 180, has not changed in 50 years, regardless of whether the students attend traditional or year-round programs.

These parents say the shorter summer schedules don’t give them enough time for family reunions, social events or vacations. They want plain, old-fashioned “downtime” together when neither parents nor students are rushed or stressed by school schedules and homework during the lazy, hazy days of summer.

Children, they say, can engage in important learning activities such as summer camps and enrichment programs. Here they quote Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus: “You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.”

Indeed, while in Europe this summer, I witnessed hordes of middle-class students traveling alone, in tour groups or with their families. Surely, their history lessons will come easier than those of their classmates who do not have the benefit of such opportunities.

Still, traditional calendar supporters express concern for working families, saying that year-round schooling creates more disruption and higher day care costs.

They also contend that earlier start dates cut into summer employment, especially for needy students. D.C. recreation officials, for example, said they had to close city pools early for lack of lifeguards who had to return to school before Labor Day, when most pools are traditionally scheduled to close.

Equally important, proponents of a traditional year argue that teachers need summers to spend time with their families, to avoid burnout or take classes to improve their instructional skills.

“Who dares to teach, must not cease to learn,” the traditionalists quote John Cotton Dana, a public library proponent of 100 years ago. Indeed, I not only taught a summer school class, I engaged in independent study. One size fits all, in testing, in curriculum or in calendars does not work well in public education.

For years, I have argued for a year-round, extended school calendar, especially for disadvantaged students in poorer school districts who need all the lessons they can get to keep from being left behind.

Of course, that stance was taken before I became a teacher and a student, who also longs for a longer summer break.

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