When Jamar Pittman returned to St. Petersburg, Fla., from a trip last week, he discovered he'd already missed three days of class.
"They are cutting into my vacation!" exclaims the hulking sophomore as he walks out of St. Petersburg High School into the heavy August heat. He might be forgiven the error. After all, who ever heard of school on Aug. 4?
But as school districts race to compete - often searching for any edge on students' test performance - summer is dwindling. Start dates are sliding ever earlier, even creeping into July in some states. Labor Day may soon mean cramming for midterms instead of shopping for No. 2 pencils.
Districts justify the change with the need to squeeze in more prep time for state exams, or the desire to finish the fall semester before Christmas break. But some wonder whether one of the most cherished rites of American youth - a carefree summer of days at the town pool or working at the local Dairy Queen - is lost in the process. Add to that the trend toward lengthy required reading lists and schedules packed with math camp, piano lessons, SAT prep courses, and college-résumé-building activities, and summer - or an idealized view of it, at any rate - seems to have slipped away.
"Kids are so curious. But if they don't have time to get out and explore ... they won't be able to find out what more they want to learn," says Tina Bruno, director of Time to Learn, a nonprofit in San Antonio that opposes year-round schools and early start dates. "Everything our kids learn is not going to happen in the walls of a classroom."
Still, that notion of halcyon days spent swimming rivers, lying in fields, and selling lemonade has long ceased to be a reality for most families - a point that short-summer advocates are quick to make. For families in which both parents work, 12 weeks with kids home can be a burden. Most can't afford long summer camps, and kids may spend more time in hot apartments watching TV than exploring outside or playing make-believe.
"It's the elites who go to eight-week camps that are advertised in the back pages of the New York Times Magazine," says Charles Ballinger of the National Association for Year-Round Education in San Diego. "Those families that can afford to have at least one parent home are a minority." Mr. Ballinger would like to see summer shortened to six weeks, and more time given throughout the year. Not only does the year-round schedule keep kids from getting bored, he says; it also keeps them from forgetting too much from the year before.
Even that "summer slide" - the forgetting of last year's hard-won learning - is tied to economics and class, according to a Johns Hopkins University study. In it, low-income students lost ground each summer, widening achievement gaps. Middle-class students are less likely to lose reading and math skills, says Ballinger, while low- income kids - who may not have adults reading with them in the summer - often come back at a disadvantage.
The ideas of shortened summers, year-round school, and early start dates are relatively recent. In 1988, about half the nation's schools started their years before Sept. 1, according to Market Data Retrieval in Shelton, Conn. Just 10 years later, that had risen to 71 percent.
The South has been especially eager to start school early, despite famously hot, humid Augusts. In Alabama this year, 98 percent of students will be back in the classroom by Friday according to Ms. Bruno. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi are also starting earlier. Schools there don't always make summer much shorter - school often ends by mid-May - but don't try telling that to parents buying spiral notebooks in July.
In many areas, shorter summers have inspired a backlash, with vicious calendar wars. Mothers bemoan the loss of lazy August days spent taking kids to the pool. High schoolers complain they don't have enough time for jobs.
In St. Petersburg, Jamar wasn't the only one to miss the first days of class - and some were ready to make a federal case out of it. "What happened to summer vacation?" asks sophomore Floyd Gray. "I don't think Bush will be happy until we're going to school year round."
School administrators counter with the need to improve test scores, retain knowledge, and squeeze the semester in before Christmas. Everything from the cost of air conditioning to competing studies on how much kids forget is thrown into the fray.
"I want a 12-week summer," says Laura Lively Charlton. The Huntsville, Ala., mother sent her third-grader back to school on Aug. 6, and she's already missing time by the pool. "Once school starts, sports start, you have homework, they have to go to bed," she says. "Kids need real downtime. I had that growing up."
Ms. Charlton tries to keep non-school time from becoming too scheduled: She limits activities to swim team in the summer, and soccer and one non-sports activity, like chess club, during the year. "Free time has shrunk," she says sadly. "They push, push, push kids." This week, she noticed the lifeguards at the neighborhood pool doing homework in the afternoons.
Not in Oklahoma City, though. This year, kids are enjoying a school-free August for the first time in years. After parents petitioned the school board - pointing out that it cost an extra $150,000 to cool schools in August and bringing their kids to a meeting to make their case - the board capitulated. School will start Sept. 2.
"My son told them: 'We can't go to the pool when it would be the best,' " says Barbara Bowersox, a lawyer who helped lead the fight for a later start. The boy's other argument: He missed having his Aug. 13 birthday in the summer. For the past four years, he told the board, school had actually started on his birthday.
Ms. Bowersox and her kids are relishing the extra weeks, and already have plans: a trip to a nearby amusement park and digging for crystals at the Great Salt Plains State Park. "We're going to the pool every day of August that we can," she says. "We are enjoying our summer."
• Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin and Lynn Waddell, in St. Petersburg, Fla., contributed to this report.