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Editorial: Should schools restore students' long lost summers?
Debate over early August start of classes shouldn’t take away local decision-making
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Cherokee Bluff High School students enter the cafeteria Tuesday, Aug, 7, 2018, during the first day of classes for the new high school in South Hall County. - photo by Scott Rogers

At one time kids savored August as the final act of summer’s symphony, when lightning bugs beckoned for a hole-punched Skippy jar, bare toes romped through cool grass, baseball cards hummed in bicycle spokes and the long days didn’t end until the streetlights came on well after dinner.

Now, Georgia youngsters can barely dip a toe into August before they are yoked with bookbags and forced to schlep through stifling heat to climb onto even hotter school buses.

Schools in most North Georgia districts now begin in early August, some as early as late July, a school calendar creep that has moved starting dates earlier over time. Now Georgia students look enviously to their cousins up north and see them soaking up summer days up to Labor Day.

Gainesville schools began Aug. 8 this year, Hall County a day earlier. Some metro Atlanta counties started even earlier.

Now some want to see the state’s schools revert to the traditional calendar and begin in early September, or at least later in August. Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, heads an 11-member state Senate study committee to evaluate whether shifting classes to a later start would have a positive effect on families and regional economies.

Many education officials favor the current calendar, which shrinks summer vacation to two months but adds shorter breaks during each semester. Their point is based on the idea the traditional calendar is based on antiquated concerns over agricultural needs and a lack of air conditioning that no longer apply.

They claim students learn better without long classroom breaks. By starting earlier, schools can end the semester and final exams before Christmas break and keep students on schedule for standardized tests throughout the year.

There is some data to support this, based on the idea that students at risk from learning challenges or language barriers in particular benefit from shorter breaks that help them retain what they’ve learned.

“We know long breaks in time are not good in terms of teaching young children,” Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said.

“Any time you’re building a calendar, you’re trying to maximize your instructional days,” Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said.

Those who prefer a later start base their case on benefits to families and the community. Summer vacation plans are complicated by a shorter break, particularly if visiting relatives are on different school schedules. Georgia’s resorts lose business from a shorter tourism season and many teen workers must leave summer jobs to return to class.

But should economics factor into the discussion or should schedules be based only on what’s best for students’ education?

Teachers and parents have complained in recent years that standardized test scores that determine which students move ahead and how schools are graded carry too much weight. When classes “teach to the test,” the sole intent is for students to retain enough information to avoid the negative impact of failing test grades. That pressure on educators led to the Atlanta Public Schools testing scandal and skews the long-held ideal of a well-rounded educational experience.

Let’s not forget teachers who often spend their abbreviated summers adding to their own educational resumes and professional training. A shorter break squeezes their vacation options, especially challenging when their own children attend school districts with different schedules than theirs.

Another aspect is child care, a challenge for many parents any time of year, especially for lower-income families and single parents. Summer camps and similar activities provide a useful, affordable option for many but may be harder to come by during midyear breaks. Few of those parents can take time off work to watch their children.

And there’s the heat. Yes, all schools now are air conditioned, but most buses are not, and those afternoon rides in traffic can be miserable. There also are higher utility costs incurred by running AC units for several more weeks.

Actually there are two debates here. On whether to start classes earlier or later, strong arguments can be made by both sides. But the second question is whether the state should intervene by drawing a line in the calendar that districts can’t cross. For many, that’s a deal breaker.

Fourteen states, including Virginia, Texas and Tennessee, mandate “no earlier than” start dates for school districts. This takes flexibility away from local jurisdictions and gives it to legislators, a top-down approach many find disagreeable. Such was the case in 2005 when Georgia lawmakers’ last attempt to mandate a late August starting date failed. Such a move “flies in the face of everything we’ve talked about – and that’s local control,” Schofield said.

He’s right. We see a strong case for pushing back the start of school, if not to Labor Day at least by a week or two. Students from families who travel can gain unique knowledge visiting historic and natural sites and seeing the country. Others can learn responsibility and money management at summer jobs. All children should experience life outside of a classroom and approach education as a lifelong quest pursued both inside and outside of school.

But that case should be made before city and county school boards directly accountable to their communities and able to amend policies to best fit the needs of schools and families. When the decision is seized by state legislators, business and special interests can carry too much weight.

“We’ve always opposed the efforts to make this a state decision,” said Angela Palm, the Georgia School Boards Association’s policy and legislative services director. “Every time this proposal has come up it’s been related to economic development and tourism, it’s not been related to education.”

Local control of education is preferable to adding layers of government oversight. Whatever the Senate panel’s findings, we hope it realizes school boards should make the call based on input from residents rather than a one-size-fits-all decree from the Gold Dome. When it comes to school policies, the fewer hands on the wheel that drives the bus, the better.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Executive Editor Keith Albertson and Director of Content Shannon Casas, plus community member Brent Hoffman.