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Early school start a growing trend

Sun., Aug. 31, 2008

West Valley joins those already back in class

Residents on Ella Road experienced something Thursday they haven’t seen since June.

A traffic jam.

The tangle of buses, minivans and pedestrians is nothing remarkable at Centennial Middle School. But the first tie-up of the school year was unusual for August.

This is the first year in recent memory that West Valley students started the school before Labor Day, putting the Valley’s smallest school district in league with a growing number nationwide.

Students attending Deer Park and Gonzaga Prep also went back to school last week, as did those in some districts that serve agricultural communities, like Freeman and Tekoa. All North Idaho schools start after the holiday, although many in Southern Idaho started last week.

Nationwide, nearly three-quarters of schools start before Labor Day, up from about half of all schools in the late 1980s, according to Market Data Retrieval, which tracks education trends.

MDR reports what schools do without asking why, said Moira McArdle, vice president of marketing for the Connecticut-based research company. Anecdotally, though, the company notes that many Southerners tend to favor an early start because it means summer vacation can begin before the humidity becomes intense. And the Los Angeles Times has reported that many Southern California schools start early to provide the most class time possible before students take standardized tests in the spring.

Not that the trend is universally applauded. Governors in Minnesota and Michigan signed laws earlier this decade mandating a post-Labor Day school start. A failed attempted to do the same in Pennsylvania came after a 2005 survey indicated that 64 percent of Keystone state residents thought school shouldn’t start before the first Tuesday in September.

At West Valley, “we’ve had people asking why (the year’s starting earlier than usual) and some that are disgruntled because it cuts their vacation short,” said district spokeswoman Sue Shields.

School calendars for Washington districts generally are a matter of staff preference and community tradition. Committees in each district normally work a year or two in advance to come up with a couple of proposed calendars. Those are put to a vote of school staff.

There are limits to each district’s flexibility: Calendars must include 180 days of school, while accommodating all state and federal holidays. And students must be in class during the spring WASL season.

But by starting in August, schools can start summer vacation earlier or provide more vacation days during the school year.

West Valley’s calendar this year includes some four-day weekends that wouldn’t have been possible without the early start, Shields said.

South of Spokane, in the Freeman School District, last Wednesday’s start means that if there are no snow days to make up, school will end June 9, a few days earlier than most urban and suburban districts.

“Our staff and community like an early summer,” said Superintendent Sergio Hernandez. “It helps kids get a jump on the labor market.”

Some teachers feel there’s a benefit to easing kids into the school year, with three days before the long weekend and four days this week, Hernandez said. And many high school students were already involved in football and volleyball practices, and other activities.

Tekoa Superintendent Wayne Massie said an early start and early release usually work well with the Palouse farm calendar. Most years, the wheat crop has primarily been harvested by late August, although this year is an exception because of summer rains and periods of cool weather, Massie said.

Some of his students will miss a day or two of school for the Palouse Empire Fair, which starts Wednesday and ends Sunday. But Massie said it’s better that they’ve had a jump on the school year than to miss from the very start, and it’d be unrealistic to postpone the start of school until after the fair closes.

The Rev. Kevin Connell said an early start and early release means Gonzaga Prep isn’t competing with Spokane high schools for use of the INB Performing Arts Center during graduation season.

“We have a pretty long tradition of starting before Labor Day,” said Connell, G-Prep’s principal.

But one district with a history of pre-holiday starts reversed that trend this year. Assistant Superintendent Jan Beauchamp wouldn’t speculate about why a majority of East Valley staff voted more than a year ago to adopt a 2008-09 calendar with a post-holiday start.

But, she said, “there are always long discussions.”

Contact Dan Hansen at (509) 459-3938 or

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