Starting school before Labor Day: Would it raise test scores?

Minneapolis public school buses
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Buses outside Jefferson Elementary School in Minneapolis. This year nine districts, including Minneapolis, are legally starting school before Labor Day because they have construction or remodeling projects.

Talk about the late start for public schools this year is as widespread and predictable as the purple phlox now blooming in so many Minnesota yards.

Yet this year even some educators are complaining about the Sept. 8 school-start and asking a worthwhile question: Would starting schools before Labor Day improve students’ test scores?

That’s a key query given that so many Minnesota schools — like most across the nation — aren’t keeping pace with rising learning standards in the federal No Child Left Behind program. There’s slight improvement statewide in reading and math proficiency, but not enough.

That’s fodder for educators who wish the Legislature and the state’s tourism industry would butt out of the business of dictating school calendars. State law mandates schools start after Labor Day, the first Monday in September, for economic reasons. 

Would an earlier start mean more learning?

Starting after Labor Day means fewer classroom days to prepare students for state and other standardized tests during the school year and that hurts efforts to make what educators call adequate yearly progress, says Greg Abbott , spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association, a group that lobbies for more local decision-making regarding school calendars.

“They lose a week, week and one half to get their kids up to standard,” said Abbott. “They may not hit all the content areas they need to hit by the time the test rolls around.”

Kids ‘more engaged’
Opening school doors in August would give students a leg up on prep for tests such as the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in April, as well as the Advanced Placement Tests and ACT college admissions tests for high school students, argued Redwood Area Schools superintendent Rick Ellingworth last week. He spoke from his office in the Minnesota River Valley town of Redwood Falls.

“We could capture as many as 10 high impact learning days when kids are ready to go to school. They’re more engaged this time of year than in late May or early June,” Ellingworth said, explaining a proposal his district serving about 1,200 students and 12 other districts in southwest Minnesota sent to the state Department of Education last spring.

The 13 districts asked for permission to start classes Aug. 24 under a flexible-learning-year-proposal exclusion in the law that mandates schools start after Labor Day.

The move also would have the 13 districts and their K-12 schools on a common calendar with area colleges, a help to 200 of their high school students enrolled in Post-Secondary Educational Options classes. Plus, it would have allowed more teacher-training collaboration and networking among teachers across districts.

The Department denied the request, though encouraging implementation of the collaborative efforts, Ellingworth said.

Ellingworth said state officials said the proposal needed academic evidence that more school days would result in better test results.

“We thought we could actually be the research,” Ellingworth said. “This is a good idea that isn’t going away.”

Taking a contrary position is Suzanne Kelly, interim superintendent for St. Paul Schools, the state’s diverse and second largest district with about 38,000 students. Start dates don’t matter if you hit the ground running, she says. “I’m hoping our classrooms and teachers are so engaging and students wanting to learn that we don’t lose any time learning” from day one, she said.

Also, learning continues in the district most of the summer through summer programs and camps, Kelly said.

Besides, starting school before Labor Day, which is also traditionally the last day of the mega Minnesota State Fair, poses a logistical problem for St. Paul schools. The district’s school buses are housed on Como Avenue near the fairgrounds and fair traffic would complicate getting kids to school on time.

Response to lobbyists
The after-Labor-Day start law was passed in the mid-1980s during a down economic time in response to pleas from resort owners and State Fair lobbyists. Starting school earlier would cut into family vacation time and reduce the number of young workers employed at resorts and at the fair, they pleaded, thus reducing income for business and workers. The law would boost struggling industries, according to that line of reasoning.

Abbott and the school boards he represents beg to differ. “We think local school boards have a better idea when they need to start school than the State Fair or resort owners,” Abbott said.

“It’s basically economic development versus educational local control,” said Jim Grathwol, lobbyist for Minneapolis public schools, where the doors open for classes Sept. 1 this year, allowable under a provision in the statute.

This year nine districts, including Minneapolis, are legally starting before Labor Day because they have construction or remodeling projects totaling $400,000 or more, an exemption provision in the law.

 The exemption means that Fillmore Central district based in Preston and having 560 students in three schools will open its classroom doors on Aug. 24.

The early start date for that district 50 miles south of Rochester means the school year can end May 24, 2010, to give construction workers more summer time to complete a $1.9 million remodeling project at the middle school, according to Blaine Mow, building and grounds supervisor for the district. New boilers and ventilation units are being installed to increase energy efficiency.

St. Louis Park schools, too, are engaged in remodeling projects spread over two or three summers, said district spokeswoman Sara Thompson, and so qualify for exception.

Some legislators tried to change the school-start law last session.

DFL state Rep. Kim Norton of Rochester thought she had come up with a compromise bill when she suggested school districts be allowed to start before the Labor Day only if they “guaranteed” they’d give their pupils the Thursday and Friday before the holiday off. That would have allowed families with children extended Labor Day vacations.

The bill almost passed, garnering bi-partisan support. “We needed five people to change their minds,” Norton said.

The current economic recession was also a powerful argument for continuing the post Labor Day start.

Cynthia Boyd writes on education, health, social issues and other topics. She can be reached at cboyd[at minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 08/17/2009 - 07:41 am.

    One point that is overlooked in this post is that the late ending date makes it more difficult for Minnesota high school students 16 and older to find a summer job since many college students are already finished by late May and are available.

    Yes, high school students can certainly search for a summer job before school is out (and they should), but their hours are often limited due to school and school activities through early June.

  2. Submitted by Pat McGee on 08/17/2009 - 08:14 am.

    Maybe Minnesota should do an in-depth comparison with like school districts in the many states that start before Labor Day. School has already started in many states putting Minnesota school districts much more than a week behind.

    Also, with all due respect to St. Paul’s interim superintendent, her line about hoping everyone hits the ground running and students are eager to learn is so much claptrap. Look at the realities of starting a school year with getting into a routine, getting paperwork out of the way and the reality of the demographics in St. Paul. Get real.

  3. Submitted by Tom Knisely on 08/17/2009 - 09:36 am.

    Here’s a novel idea. Have the teachers union hold their convention in the summer time instead of October. That would gain us two school days right there.

  4. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/17/2009 - 08:56 pm.

    Yes, our children would benefit from a longer school year, perhaps more so with year round schools. Restructure the school day with fewer academic subjects, add more creative arts and library time, and take breaks in the school year at regular intervals. In other words, stretch the time and focus the learning.

    Students in almost 30 industrialized countries have longer school years than the 180 day average we have in the United States. Look at these few examples:

    Japan = 243 school days
    S. Korea = 220 school days
    Israel = 216 days
    Netherlands = 200 days

    The big question remains, however. Does more school equal more learning? The answer here is YES, and NO. YES, good schooling over a longer period will have better results; NO, bad schooling over a longer period will not have better results. This is an entirely different subject and needs its own treatment.

    Consider some of the other factors that favor extending the school year:

    * These massive school buildings should be used, not idle.
    * The administration and teaching staff is paid a “yearly” salary – regular breaks and
    sabbaticals can accommodate their continued education.
    * It is the poorest of our kids that would benefit most. These kids don’t generally get to summer camp and specialized retreats for the arts… etc
    * Since we’re not an agricultural society any longer, our kids need something constructive to do during the summer.

    The idea of an extending the school year, or perhaps making school a year round affair should be seriously considered.

  5. Submitted by Mark Ohm on 08/18/2009 - 10:11 am.

    This discussion is moot if your children attend “year-round” schools. My daughters both attend “year-round” schools in Minnesota (Harambee Elementary and Crosswinds Middle School). They just finished school on August 6. The basic calendar is 9 weeks of school followed by 3 weeks off. The 3 weeks off are manipulated somewhat to allow time off around holidays. During the three weeks off, optional enrichment activities are offered which generally fall into “broadening horizons” or “catchup/review.” The main quarter breaks are in November, February, and May. August is a “between-year” break. The “new” school year starts again after Labor Day.

    This schedule requires nothing but commitment, air conditioning and looking past old paradigms.

    Parents and teachers involved both like the schedule, as it evens out work and breaks throughout the year.

  6. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 08/18/2009 - 06:06 pm.

    I like the comments especially Mr. Schultze’s. Let me add some empirical data to the conversation. Schools districts that have a history of using continuous and frequent student measurement such as Minneapolis and St. Croix River (SCRED) have pretty clear data that show a steep slope of improvement in student performance between Sept and January and less improvement in the remainder of the year. Almost all school data sets show this same pattern. It stands to reason that adding more time in the first half of the year might get more academic achievement gains. But that certainly is not going to be a big factor.

    The Labor Day start issue is clear evidence that at the highest level of our (formal) society (the Legislature) the system is designed to meet adult needs and not those of our children. Many adult commentators say this about the teachers union but it is in fact our society that takes this stand.

    My own idea is to assign an outstanding and warm paraprofessional to each classroom teacher and that is to whom students report on the first day of school. The para takes care of the missing boots, notes home, runny noses milk money etc. In swoops the teacher to do high quality instruction assisted by the para. Then add a day to the calendar for each of the next 30 years and five minutes to the calendar for the next ten. Let principals schedule in more exercise and breaks while increasing academic engaged time. That and using RTI will get you more academic achievement and we can quit fighting about Labor Day, charters, Q-Comp and other distractions not empirically associated with increased academic achievement.

  7. Submitted by Leslie Hittner - Winona on 08/22/2009 - 06:28 pm.

    Where is the data to support the idea that employers give their employees longer vacations when the school year begins later…People take what vacation they have and they take it when they can.

    I think this is all about the State fair.

    As has been noted by other commenters, we need more time on task in schools in this nation. That means a longer school year…and yes..teacher conventions in the summer!

    Let educators decide how to run their schools. Such micromanagement from the state legislature is not in the best interests of education.

    That is for sure.

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