Earlier start dates draw criticism: Schools like to get a jump on the schedule, but tourist sites say business is suffering; legislators take notice

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A schoolyard brawl is beginning to brew over whether districts are cutting summers short and sending students back to class too soon.

For most school districts, the era of starting school after Labor Day went the way of the typewriter in the 1980s. But some Indiana lawmakers and tourism advocates are beginning to clamor for a state academic calendar that would turn the clock back on early start dates.

That’s because many school districts in Indiana resumed classes in mid-August. The Evansville School District got the biggest jump when it welcomed students back Aug. 10.

The trend toward earlier start dates has picked up steam in recent years as school corporations increasingly want to balance school calendars and end their first semester by the winter break. Providing students more time to prepare for standardized tests in September also is a factor, given the consequences of not meeting stringent No Child Left Behind requirements.

The result is a shorter vacation season that is hitting kid-friendly destinations in the pocketbook.

Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari in southern Indiana has shut down on weekdays every summer on Aug. 17 for about a decade to keep in step with school calendars, said President and General Manager Will Koch.

“We don’t have much choice because our seasonal employees are high school and college students,” he said. “And our customers are families with children. We not only lose our employees, but we lose our customer base, also.”

And Holiday World isn’t alone. Across the state and nationally, tourists sites are experiencing drastically reduced business in August.

That has led an Indiana senator to charge the Indiana Tourism Council with convening a committee to study the issue.

Dubbed the School Start Date Project, the group includes executives from Holiday World in Santa Claus and Indiana Beach Amusement & Camp Resort near Monticello. They will convene in September and complete a report by Nov. 1.

Three state legislators attempted to tackle the issue during the spring session, but made no progress. All three bills failed to advance past Senate and House education committees.

One bill authored by Rep. Don Lehe, RBrookston, would have prohibited public schools from beginning the academic year more than one week before the first Monday in September.

Lehe said he has received positive feedback from parents and the tourism industry, and he plans to introduce his bill again next year. His main reason is to support Indiana Beach, which is in Lehe’s district.

“High school kids are a big source of labor to operate the resorts,” he said. “And once school starts, people quit taking vacations.”

Another bill introduced by former Rep. Robert Alderman, who since has retired as a legislator, would have prohibited districts from starting before the first Monday in September.

And a bill authored by Sen. Robert Meeks, R-LaGrange, would have required schools to begin the academic year after Aug. 31 and end before June 2.

State fair concerned

The Indiana State Fair officials who moved their event to mid-August years ago hardly could have imagined class time interfering with cattle, cotton candy and carnival rides.

But it is happening, and fair officials for the first time late last year sought assistance from the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Suellen Reed. She drafted a three-paragraph memo to educators requesting they consider, when planning their 2005 calendars, the 20,000 kids who participate in 4-H activities.

“Each district has a different view whether that’s an excused or unexcused absence,” said Cynthia Hoye, the fair’s executive director. “As schools start back earlier, we have to shift our schedules. We’re trying to address it head on.”

Attendance figures suffer, too, Hoye said. Even though traffic is strong, topping 900,000 last year, weekday visits decline once schools are back in session.

This year’s state fair ran Aug. 10-21.

The dilemma of early start dates reaches beyond Indiana’s borders. About threefourths of the nation’s public schools now start before Sept. 1. Just one-third started that early in the late 1980s, according to a survey by educational research firm Market Data Retrieval.

The two biggest school districts in Florida- Broward County and Miami-Dade County-started Aug. 8, according to The Wall Street Journal. And in Texas, where districts must get permission from the state to start before the week on which Aug. 21 falls, more than 700 districts received waivers to begin earlier.

A handful of states have responded by passing laws.

North Carolina requires schools to start after Aug. 25.

Wisconsin schools cannot begin until after Sept. 1.

Virginia students cannot return before Labor Day.

Minnesota students also will not start before Labor Day, beginning next year.

Not enough days

Administrators counter that the constraints of today’s educational environment make it nearly impossible to start school in September. While the state’s academic calendar increased from 175 days to 180 days in the mid-1980s, testing factors surfacing in the late 1990s since have added to the difficulty.

Mandatory ISTEP testing begins Sept. 19 for Indiana students in grades 3 through 10. Sophomores also must take the Graduating Qualifying Exam to graduate. Testing begins Sept. 20.

Starting school earlier gives teachers more time to prepare students for the exams, administrators argue. Early start dates also give districts the flexibility of ending their semesters before winter vacation. That way, high school students do not have to take semester tests a week or two after returning from the long break, said John Ellis, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.

Staff development days and fall and spring breaks make schedules even more challenging.

“Everybody wants to start at Labor Day and be done by Memorial Day, but the days don’t add up,” Ellis said. “You can’t get 180 days in there.”

Ellis said shortening spring break is an option, but he advised anyone who proposes that idea to first don a suit of armor and bring a unit of Marines for protection.

School superintendents are required to at least discuss calendars with teachers, per their bargaining agreement. The Indiana State Teachers Association, as well as the state’s Department of Education, takes no position on the issue.

Many teachers would prefer an academic year lasting more than 180 days if it meant more pay, said Judith Briganti, president of the teachers association.

To compensate for the earlier start dates, meanwhile, state fair officials schedule livestock competitions a few days before the fair officially starts. They also launched a Junior Explorers program in which they visit schools and give fourth graders a free ticket to the fair to explore state history.

“We want to make sure they have an opportunity to participate,” Hoye said of the children. “That’s why we’re here. In order to continue to grow, we need to work cooperatively with the schools.”

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