More school bells are ringing in August

Ah-h-h, the lazy days of August. Time for kids to make last treks to the pool, to take end-of-summer vacations with family, to ... spend long, hot afternoons toiling over mounds of homework?

For hundreds of thousands of America's students, the traditional return to school - after Labor Day in September - has become a date for the history books.

In the past decade or so, the number of public schools opening in August has jumped by almost 63 percent. That means school bells now ring early in about three-quarters of the nation's schools, according to a new survey by Market Data Retrieval in Shelton, Conn.

The back-to-school-in-August trend has been driven by ardent champions - including learning experts and some teachers - who say it gives students more instruction time before statewide assessment tests, enables schools to tuck in final exams before winter break, and assuages concerns of learning loss over long summer breaks.

But it has also sparked a backlash. Parents, in particular, object to the new schedules, complaining that it's too hot for children to sit in school and that August classes impinge on family vacations. Even the tourism industry has complained about losses stemming from a shorter summer season.

Back to school for Heather

Heather Mann of Austin, Texas, went back to school on Tuesday, to her mother's consternation. "I think it's child abuse," says Sandi Mann, recalling an August afternoon several years ago when students sweltered after air conditioning in the middle school broke down.

Even when schools are well-ventilated, she says, stuffy buses can be brutal. "If I were to lock her in the bedroom and turn off the air conditioning, someone would arrest me," she says. "But the school system locks up 70,000 kids."

Two hundred miles down the road, in Arlington, Larry Forbes says his children can't even go out to play at recess in August. Because of high humidity and pollution levels, students have indoor recess for the first month of school - time spent "watching movies or doing worksheets."

When school starts early, opponents say, students miss lazy summer days that can be vital to an academic fresh start. "When you give kids their vacation piecemeal, they never really reach boredom," says Tina Bruno, executive director of Time to Learn in San Antonio, a nonprofit coalition battling August school openings. Until that boredom sets in, she says, kids may not be ready to hit the books.

"The place those kids belong this time of year," says Ms. Mann, "is in the pool."

But supporters of August starts say that, with all that pool time, precious lessons float away. A shorter summer, they insist, means students retain more of what they learned the previous school year. And by scooting final exams to the week before winter break, teachers save time reviewing in January.

For high school students taking advanced classes at local universities, having calendars coincide is an academic boon. William Henry Harrison High School in Lafayette, Ind., has started school in mid-August for years - partly to match the calendar of Purdue University, just across town. Principal Ken Siekman says the August start also gives students a few extra weeks to prepare for September state tests.

Administrators say that year-round schools - extreme examples of the early start - often have lower absentee rates, fewer students repeating grades, and impressive reductions in referrals for behavior problems and special education. Early-start advocates insist that traditional schools can achieve some of those gains simply by starting school in August.

Wasting time in June?

But the most important reason to make the shift is simply attitude, says William Rebore, chairman of the department of educational leadership and higher education at St. Louis University. Students are more receptive to learning in August, he says, than they are when the school year drags well into June, and so benefit from a calendar shift.

In response to early starts, furious Texas parents banned together in 1999, demanding legislation to postpone the first day of school. Last May, they succeeded, with a new law preventing public schools from opening before the week of Aug. 21. Five other states - Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and West Virginia - have similar rules.

Wait for migrant children

Texas state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. says he hopes parents will push their districts even further, lobbying for school to start after Labor Day.

The biggest winners, he suggests, will be migrant students - 200,000 children whose families head north for the summer harvest and are often hard-pressed to make it back to Texas by mid-August.

In a state where 36 percent of the students drop out of school between ninth and 12th grades, a September start could help keep kids in class, says Gene Hanson, a sixth-grade art teacher in Weslaco, Texas. "We're looking at people wanting more vacation time, teachers wanting to finish their grades before the holidays," he says. "But we're losing 100,000 kids a year."

The late-start movement is popular with the tourism industry, too, which often relies on the last half of August for a final burst of summer business. With a labor force already depleted by departing college students, the loss of high school crews can be a final blow, prompting amusement parks to shut down early and leave their rides gleaming motionless in the summer sun.

It's a sight that makes students sigh, as they bend over books, with hair still full of sand. Amid slamming lockers and the squeal of school bells, they might sound a refrain much like that of Mr. Forbes in Arlington: "Why have school in the middle of summer," he asks, "when you could wait three more weeks?"

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